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Lisa Kimmel is general manager of Edelman Toronto
Lisa Kimmel is general manager of Edelman Toronto

LEADERSHIP LAB

Why won’t female experts speak up? Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

When I ask our female clients to consider building their profile through media opportunities, I’m almost guaranteed to hear one of three things:

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“I don’t have anything substantive to say.”

“I don’t want to build my own profile.”

“I don’t want to take personal credit for my team’s success.”

I also frequently hear from journalists who tell me, “It’s not that we don’t want to feature women as experts in our coverage. It’s that women almost consistently say, ‘I’m not the right person.’ ”

It’s no secret that we have a gap when it comes to gender diversity in the media, and it’s been a hot topic for discussion and research. In fact, according to statistics from Informed Opinions, women make up just over 51 per cent of the paid work force and represent 60 per cent of Canada’s university graduates. Yet we make up just 20 per cent of guest commentaries in Canada’s largest daily newspapers, and account for only 30 per cent of experts on national talk shows.

I recently hosted a debate and panel discussion in partnership with the Rotman Initiative for Women In Business with Elena Cherney, Canada bureau chief and global resources editor at the Wall Street Journal in Toronto; Tracie Crook, chief operating pfficer of McCarthy Tétrault and president of MT Services; Shari Graydon, founder of Informed Opinions; and Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente, to explore what we can do to solve it.

The proposed solutions, of course, were varied and complex, but ultimately, my view is that the onus for change lies in several places:

The Media: The typical gender stereotypes still make their appearance on a regular basis, and will likely continue to do so until we see a more equitable balance between men and women experts in the stories we see and hear. And while it certainly isn’t a conspiracy against women, I think we can challenge the media to continue to look for – and push for – more of the credible, authoritative female voices we know are out there, rather than continually falling back on established commentators.

Women: The media can come calling, but if women aren’t willing to put themselves out there, the problem will continue to persist. This goes back to the notion of confidence, rather than competence, as the major stumbling block women face when it comes to offering up our expertise. As I mentioned above, I’ve witnessed this insecurity first-hand in my conversations with female clients. The reality is, when we decline an offer to speak up, we delegate away our authority and relinquish control of our personal brand. Not only that, without the female perspective, media coverage lacks important perspectives and ideas, and young women see fewer strong female role models.

Individual organizations: Throughout my career as I’ve worked with clients to identify spokespeople, I’ve found that politics often play a role when it comes to determining who is offered up as a company representative. This is particularly the case in traditionally male-dominated industries, and can obviously hinder a woman’s confidence if she feels she is not being positioned properly to have a voice. Organizations need to foster an environment where women are empowered and trusted to be the go-to contact when a journalist calls, regardless of title.

Public relations practitioners: Ultimately, PR needs to be part of the solution, too. Given that PR practitioners work so closely with the media, we have a responsibility to raise awareness of, and encourage discussion on, the issue of gender diversity. We also have a responsibility to counsel our clients to encourage and prepare their women leaders to embrace their expertise and make their voices heard.

Gender diversity ultimately creates better stories, better content, and better engagement among audiences. And in the end, isn’t that something that we all deserve?

Lisa Kimmel (@lisakimmel) is general manager of Edelman Toronto (@EdelmanTO). Edelman (@EdelmanPR) is the world’s largest public relations firm.

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