When it comes to women in media, let's #AskHerMore

In Canadian media, women are responsible for a paltry quarter of the expertise and opinion — and they're weighing in on what it's like to be a woman.

Women make up slightly more than half the Canadian population, but in media we are responsible for roughly a quarter of the expertise, insight and viewpoints. That figure comes from the organization Informed Opinion, which studied online news stories and broadcasts from seven national outlets (the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Post, La Presse, CTV National News, CBC’s The Current and ICI’s Tout le monde en parle) to determine the gender of people quoted or interviewed.

According to Informed Opinion’s tally, men made up 71 percent of the sources and women 29 percent. That means when you watch TV news, or listen to current affairs on the radio, or read online coverage, you are hearing, overwhelming, from men. What’s more, whether the interviewees were academics, politicians, community leaders, business people, lawyers, doctors, police or artists, male voices dominated in every professional category — even in fields like health care, where women actually outnumber men.

This won’t come as a surprise if you’re a regular consumer of mainstream news. And other reports have found similar disparities in gender, as well as in race, class, disability and ethnicity. Informed Opinion made what it called “an experimental foray” into collecting data on other kinds of representation, but was unable to get solid results because these identities could not always be gleaned from a person’s name, voice or bio. (The media site Canadaland just reported on its largely unsuccessful attempt to get data on racial diversity in the country’s newsrooms.)

To be clear, there isn’t any evidence or suggestion that the lack of female sources is deliberate. I’ve worked in media for a long time and I’ve never heard anyone say they only wanted to interview white men for a story, or they only trusted the viewpoints of white men — although there was a time, not that long ago, when that mindset was closer to the truth.

The reality is that white men continue to disproportionately run corporations, hospitals, universities and governments. If you are looking for a professional with an opinion, white male experts are easier to find. And so, by default, white men are associated with expertise — which has the result of dismissing the authority and insight of everyone else.

Related: What’s missing in the outrage about media diversity

The other problem is that when people who are from an underrepresented group do get interviewed as sources, or asked to speak on a radio show, it’s often to represent that group: They are asked to weigh in on something to do with their gender or race or sexual orientation. Of course, it makes sense to invite women to talk about issues like reproductive choice or sexual violence. But it’s reductive and limiting when that’s all that women are asked to talk about it. Why aren’t more women being sought out to analyze elections, explain the economy, review the latest film or describe a current trend in technology?

In the US earlier this week, Melissa Harris-Perry’s MSNBC weekend show was cancelled after Harris-Perry was openly critical of the network executives for repeatedly pre-empting her and insisting she adhere to a more traditional format. Harris-Perry, who is black, made a concerted effort to include wide range of guests from different racial, ethnic, sexual and class backgrounds, and the show’s subject matter equally embraced politics and popular culture. In a TV media landscape that is often homogenous and dull, Harris-Perry’s show was surprising, informative and fun. She proved that expanding the pool of experts beyond the same old list of mainstream pundits made for livelier and better-informed debates. Yet, despite her success, she was pushed out when she refused to toe the company line.

Asking that media more fully reflect its communities by including a heterogeneous mix of views and voices isn’t an argument for tokenism or quotas. It’s an argument for better journalism. If the job of media is to cover the concerns and interests of its city or nation, how can it possibly do that by only talking to a narrow slice of the population?

More columns by Rachel Giese: 
Kesha’s court battle and the power dynamics of pop music
There’s value in live-tweeting Jian Ghomeshi’s trial
The troubling end to Canada’s first Twitter harassment trial

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