Okay, I confess. I have sometimes turned down chances to blab on TV because my hair was dirty.
A quick canvass of my female colleagues reveals that I am not alone. A top expert in international relations told me she sometimes passes up a television invitation if the show doesn’t do makeup. She thinks she looks awful on TV without it.
This isn’t vanity, my friends. Nobody remembers what you say on TV. What they remember is how you looked. Men can get away with dirty hair and baggy eyes. Women can’t.
The dirty-hair problem is one of the many reasons why you don’t see more female experts on screen. It does not, however, explain why the female expertise gap is just as bad in print. Male experts quoted in news stories outnumber females by about three to one. Male opinion writers outnumber females by an even wider margin. The generally excellent Munk Debates, famous for their duelling pundits, can’t seem to scare up any women at all (except the recent all-female debate on men, which, I am sad to say, was dismal).
Why does this disparity still persist? Many people continue to blame the old boys’ club, which, consciously or not, keeps replicating itself and shutting women out. Liza Mundy, writing on the media’s women problem in The New York Times recently, referred darkly to “deals made out of sight.” In other words, gender bias in the media is still pervasive.
But television producers and op-ed editors – many of whom are women – tell a different story. They are desperate to find more female voices. One problem is that there are fewer women in the expert pool to begin with. The bigger problem is that women often turn them down.
A lot of men will do anything to get air time. A lot of women will do anything to avoid it.
Last March, TVO’s Steve Paikin, the equal-opportunity host of The Agenda, a leading current-affairs show, posted a cri de coeur on the show’s blog, headlined Where, Oh Where Are All The Female Guests?
“We constantly talk about this in our production meetings. Why can’t we get more female guests? I don’t think it’s the case that we’re not trying hard enough,” he wrote.
“There seems to be something in women’s DNA that makes them harder to book,” he continued. “No man will ever say, ‘Sorry, can’t do your show tonight, I’m taking care of my kids.’ The man will find someone to take care of his kids so he can appear on a TV show … No man will say, ‘Sorry, can’t do your show tonight, my roots are showing.’ ”
He caught hell for saying that, but it’s true – and there’s more. Women often say they’re not the best person to be on a show. Men don’t say that. Women feel they can’t present themselves as experts unless they have total mastery of the subject. Men just assume they have mastery, even when they don’t. Men have more confidence and are more willing to take risks. They don’t worry that they might look like idiots. Women obsess about that. We go home afterward, pull the covers over our heads and hope no one was watching.
In other words, men adore doing TV. Women would rather have a root canal.
Female risk aversion is more than cultural – it’s hard-wired. And it helps to explain a host of behavioural differences, ranging from why we’re more reluctant to demand raises and promotions to why we don’t jump into empty swimming pools and break our necks. Fortunately, behaviour can be modified. Go on television 200 times and you might start to like it. Or, you might decide that most of what passes for “expertise” (especially on political affairs shows) is just another version of a male pissing match, in which the person who performs the longest and the loudest is the winner.
Why is opinion-mongering so male-dominated? My theory is that men regard it as a form of competition – a chance to prove they’re smarter and more dominant than the next guy. Men like winning. They also like having all the answers, and they’re thrilled to share them with the rest of us.
In fact, the scarcity of female voices in the media isn’t as bad as people think; they’re just not looking in the right places. Foreign affairs and politics, the so-called hard news topics, are still dominated by male voices. But the subjects that tend to interest women more – education, health, food, fashion, relationships – are full of women’s voices. The largest-circulation magazine in Canada isn’t Maclean’s; it’s Chatelaine. The biggest TV star in the firmament isn’t a news anchor; it’s Oprah Winfrey. Women are not especially drawn to duelling political pundits. They’d rather watch The View (which is a bunch of women having coffee and discussing the real issues of the day).
These general preferences haven’t changed much since Gloria Steinem went undercover as a Playboy Bunny. Yet Mr. Paikin’s question is still interesting and important: How to get more women on the air?
“I don’t want my 11-year-old daughter concluding that expertise only comes in a male package,” he told me. “I want her to see brilliant women opining as well.”
So do I. I want her to see and read more brilliant women opining everywhere. The media producers have to keep on trying. And the women have to start leaning in. Get your stupid hair washed, and just do it.
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