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Speak up, sister

The Ottawa Citizen by Meredith Dault 7 March 2016

I once sat at a table and listened to a highly educated woman try to avoid describing herself as an expert. An academic at a well-regarded university, who also held one of the highest research-awards available in Canada, she shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She then admitted that her reluctance to embrace her own authority meant she was also reluctant to engage with journalists when they called her for an interview.

Her go-to answer? No thanks. Call someone else.

It’s a frustrating response – and not just for the journalist trying to get a quote. Because while women account for 60 per cent of university graduates and continue to make great strides in fields that were once male-dominated, their voices still remain surprisingly absent from the media in Canada. New, independently conducted research Informed Opinions recently released indicates that men currently account for 71 per cent of all those quoted or interviewed for mainstream newspaper articles and broadcast segments.

That means that nearly three-quarters of the expert opinions we’re hearing in the media on any given day belong to men, with women sharing what they know a paltry 29 per cent of the time. If this is the kind of news that makes you want to jump on stage at a Trump convention hollering “Just what the heck is going on here?” then let me share this even more humbling statistic: In the last two decades that number has edged up a mere seven per cent.

One of the problems is that women – like the well-qualified one above, unable to embrace her expertise – are much more likely than men to turn down media interviews. Last fall, we held a series of roundtable sessions with journalists in cities across the country who shared the same frustration. “We want to interview women,” they told us, “but they don’t want to talk to us.”

If you’ve heard the attacks Hillary Clinton has faced for being too “shrill” (a particularly derogatory adjective typically reserved for women with passionate opinions), or noticed the misogynistic brutality women are subjected to when they share their views on social media, then it makes sense. Just read the comment section on any article dealing with women’s equality.

But it’s not just that. Women also hold themselves to a higher standard of expertise. While a woman may well acknowledge that she knows a great deal about a particular subject, she may withhold sharing her expertise because of the fact that someone, somewhere out there, knows more than she does. The result? No thanks, call someone else.

The 71-29 per cent ratio isn’t all on account of women’s unwillingness to speak up, of course. The other issue is that our increasingly lean, 24-hour media landscape is requiring that journalists do more and more with less and less – and more quickly than ever. Tight timelines require go-to guests who will give you the answers you need rather than spending time sourcing or taking a chance on a new voice (it’s the same reason why the media don’t reflect our country’s diversity as well as it could, either). Oftentimes a journalist just needs an opinion, and will take it from whoever is willing to comment – and almost three-quarters of the time, that’s a man.

Overcoming the gender gap in public discourse will require a multi-pronged approach: Not only do journalists need to be more diligent in seeking out diversity in their interview subjects, smart women also need to own their expertise and share it with the world.

In doing so, they’ll also serve as role models for the next generation. That way, as today’s young women grow, their confidence in what they know will too, along with their willingness to share it.

So that one day down the road, when a journalist calls asking for an interview, those women be ready to answer with a definitive “yes.”

Meredith Dault managed ExpertWomen.ca, a database of expert Canadian women, which is a project of Informed Opinions.