Women’s Expertize Promoted on Both Sides of the Atlantic
A British journalist has launched The Women’s Room, which, like several projects in the U.S., proves that the pundit world needn’t be all male.
In Los Angeles earlier this year, while attending a seminar by the excellent Op-Ed Project, I was disappointed but not surprised to learn that the vast majority of U.S. news commentators (85 percent) are still men. Upon returning to my native U.K., I learned that we Brits don’t have much to feel smug about either when it comes to gender parity in who interprets the news.
When BBC Radio 4’s Today program ran with male-only panels on the subjects of teen contraception and breast cancer on two consecutive days, journalist Caroline Criado-Perez decided enough was enough. She was unimpressed by the BBC’s excuse that they had “been unable to find female experts despite their best efforts,” pointing out that a quick Twitter request revealed “a wealth of female experts on both topics.” Sounds like the BBC needed someone to help them compile them a ‘binder full of women’ – so that’s exactly what Criado-Perez did.
Co-founded this month by Criado-Perez and consultant Catherine Smith, The Women’s Room is a rapidly growing database of U.K. women authorities on a vast spectrum of topics ranging from video gaming to economics, ready to debunk the idea that female experts don’t exist. With nearly 1000 women signed up in just two weeks, Criado-Perez's brainchild aims to “destabilise the complacent attitude held by too many in the media, that they are doing all they can to represent the public.” And this is clearly an issue that needs addressing – when Guardian journalist Kira Cochrane carried out a count of UK newspaper bylines in June 2011, she found only 22 percent of commentators were female.
Supporters of the WMC will be aware of a similar initiative in the U.S. Women's Media Center's SheSource, ‘the go-to resource’ for anyone seeking a female expert to quote on air or in print, was started in response to the underrepresentation of women in the U.S. news. Says WMC SheSource Director Kate McCarthy, "we match media experienced women experts from our extensive database up with journalists, bookers and producers to ensure that women's voices are heard and the whole story is told." The project certainly demonstrates the fallacy in assuming that the default speaker on any topic must be a white man. It also deflates the notion that women can only be experts on stereotypically ‘female issues’ with experts on military policy, engineering and finance sitting alongside female company directors, professors and journalists on the list. As Marie C Wilson, founder of The White House Project, which first sponsored SheSource, points out, “producers and bookers have told us that they would gladly book more qualified women experts if they knew how to locate them. Now they know exactly where to look.”
Katie Orenstein, director of The Op-Ed Project, which works in tandem with WMC SheSource, acknowledges that the majority of opinion editorials are still written by “mostly white, mostly privileged, mostly men.” But the starting point for her project was the notion that instead of bemoaning this imbalance, the best thing women can do is get up and do something about it. The Op-Ed Project trains women to own their expertize and write about what they know, with the ultimate aim of seeing more bylines by women in the news. By supplying a wealth of resources on writing and submitting Op-Eds, and providing mentor-editors to each participant, the project aims to give women the confidence to consider themselves a ‘go-to source’ on any given topic. As Orenstein points out, leaving opinion pieces as the exclusive territory of a small male elite doesn’t just skew the national conversation in favor of already privileged groups, it’s also simply a massive waste. As she writes, “What would be the return to society if we could harness all that brain power?” she writes. “Women’s ideas are ...undercapitalized assets.”
It’s not easy to stand up and say ‘I know the hell out of this subject’ when our culture remains hostile to confident women, picking apart female politicians and news anchors on the basis of their appearances. But the more women support each other and follow in each other’s footsteps, the harder it will be for the dominant media to trivialise or tokenize us. Change will have to come from within, because as the BBC story demonstrates, no one is going to come looking for us female experts if we hide our lights under a bushel. Initiatives that help women find a platform benefits us all. So spread the word, tell another woman that you believe in her talents and knowledge, and most importantly – stand up and proclaim your expertise, too.
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