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By Michael Ott
“We couldn’t find any expert women,” cannot be an excuse.
That’s the mantra of a new website dedicated to amplifying women’s voices in Canadian news media. Expertwomen.ca seeks to create a database of women from across the country who are experts in their fields.
Shari Graydon, the founder of both Expert Women and its collaborative project, Informed Opinions, said there is a severe lack of female representation as sources in journalism. She cited “predictable reasons,” like the fact that many senior positions are filled by men. “Women are asked less often,” she said.
Research completed by Graydon and her team revealed that 60 per cent of university graduates in Canada are women, but 71 per cent of experts interviewed in the news are men.
“Many women are reluctant to call themselves experts,” she explained, “and journalists don’t want the brush-off.”
Graydon, who is an award-winning author and former columnist, founded Informed Opinions in 2010. This original project of hers, she said, “is more about the supply side.” It seeks to help women showcase their knowledge by writing op-eds, participating in media training workshops and seminars, and reinforcing their confidence as experts in their field.
Five years later, Graydon and her team created Expert Women, “the demand side,” which functions more as a database of experts for the media to contact. Visually similar to LinkedIn, an expert’s profile has their photo, job title, areas of research, and a list of their fields of expertise. Many profiles also feature additional photos and video, an education history, social media links, and a bit of written work.
Part of the site’s mission, Graydon explained, is to be inclusive of diverse voices. She doesn’t just want women, she wants women from all marginalized and underrepresented groups. Notably, the site features many women from regions of Canada outside the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, where much of the media is concentrated.
“Canadian media still operate across the country, and Canadian audiences want to consume news media that reflects their communities,” Graydon said. “Diverse opinions result in richer conversations.”
One of these women from outside Ontario is Dena McMartin, an environmental engineer and associate vice-president of the University of Regina. Some areas of expertise listed on her expertwomen.ca profile include Water Resource Management and Women in Engineering. She believes this geographic representation is important.
“Toronto and Ontario voices are very well represented, while those from outside Central Canada (even Northern Ontario) tend to be lacking,” McMartin responded in an email.
“My perspective is that journalists reach out to the familiar. When Toronto-based journalists are predominantly from Toronto, those are the voices we will hear most often. Diversity of geographic origin of journalists could effect significant change,” she added.
As a women working in a field typically dominated by men, McMartin notes the importance of a website like expertwomen.ca.
“I recall being in a first year course in engineering where someone commented that there were only about ten per cent women in engineering at that time. Sure enough, I was one of the 10 women in the room of 100 engineering students. The need for women’s voices to be at the table and to be heard at that table is pressing,” she wrote.
This diversity in expertise is one of the goals on the website, especially in terms of fields dominated by men. Part of the problem here, Graydon said, is that women will often think they are not the best person to respond; men rarely think this.
As a requisite for being listed as an expert on the site, one cannot turn down a journalist’s inquiry because they feel they aren’t the right person to talk to. This is Graydon’s way of combatting what she sees as a huge problem—women’s reluctance to participate.
“When a journalist calls you, you can’t say ‘I’m not the right person,’” Graydon explained. She works to ensure women recognize their own expertise so they don’t downplay it.
After developing the site and meeting with large news organizations to determine how best to shape it, Graydon said the website is ready for a public launch. Her next steps are marketing the project to newsrooms, journalism schools, and freelancers.
The team has partnered with organizations and universities across the country to recruit more experts. At beginning of 2017, Graydon said her team had successfully listed 250 women on the site, with another 250 in the approval pipeline. The group hopes to add another 1,000 women to the site in the next 18 months, from “BC, Alberta, Atlantic Canada, and everywhere in between,” Graydon said.
“We want to be a part of the solution,” she said. “We want women to step up and realize that yes, you are expert enough.”
Editor’s note, Mar. 30, 2017, 6:50 p.m.: This story has been updated to better clarify how women percieve their expertise. We apologize for the error.
Mike Ott is a master of journalism student in his final year at Ryerson. His past work has focused on coverage of queer communities, the plight of military children, and representation of race in the media. He likes writing, watching terrible television, and hoarding too many plants in his tiny apartment. Find him on twitter @MikeTheJourno.