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Saying "yes" to women experts: Informed Opinions advances women's expertise during a time of increased inequality

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Jeudi 24 septembre 2020

Lily Polowin, Digital Communications Officer at the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

You may have read the headlines: women with children have been getting pushed out of the workforce due to childcare demands during the pandemic; women have been submitting fewer articles for publication in academic journals since the start of the pandemic; and even when promoted to the second highest position in government, women’s qualifications still come under suspicion. It’s a well-established fact that global crises don’t affect everyone equally; rather they serve to exacerbate existing inequalities.

I was starting to feel depressed reading these headlines reporting on such a gloomy state of affairs for women, until I heard about a new project taking place over at Informed Opinions. After I learned more about it, I realized that the stories we read and the stories we tell (both to ourselves at home, and in public on the news) not only reflect reality but actually play a role in creating it. And I knew at once that for the 2020/2021 year, it was important for us to tell stories of women’s resilience, power, and possibility.

Since Shari Graydon founded it 10 years ago, Informed Opinions’ mandate has been to bridge the gender gap in Canadian public discourse. The core of their work is to train women to write op-eds and become more comfortable saying ‘yes’ to media interviews. They have also gathered a database of women academics and subject matter experts and pitched it to media. This year, that database has been expanded to include experts on subjects related to the COVID-19 pandemic. I had the chance to chat with Samantha Luchuk at Informed Opinions and Laura Shine and Maïka Sondarjee at the French project, Femmes Expertes about this media database – a story that inspires a lot of hope and possibility. Read on to find out more about how Informed Opinions is bolstering and enabling women’s expertise at a time when it’s dearly needed!

Lily Polowin: How did the idea for the media database come about, when did it start and finish? Was it prompted by the pandemic in any way?

Samantha Luchuk: We sent a similar list to the media during last year’s federal election, so we based the idea for a COVID-19 list of sources on that. The pandemic impacts so many aspects of our society -- health care, jobs, the economy, education, eldercare, domestic violence, to name only a few -- and our database features many experts able to offer clear and credible insight that’s helpful to Canadians.

We reached out to everyone in the database asking them to raise their hands if their expertise touched on the current crisis in any way and they were willing and available to be included on the list. We received over 100 “I’m in” replies within a couple of hours. We then compiled a list of key issues and sources available to provide their evidence-based insights. We released it to the media on March 25.

The list continues to grow and as long as the pandemic remains, we’ll maintain it and remind journalists of the diverse and authoritative sources available.

LP: How has the response been so far in terms of women subject matter experts being consulted?

Journalist requests to our database increased by 200% over the same period as last year (March 25 to September 2). Reporters and producers are seeking expertise in epidemiology, public health and economics, but also less predictable topics such as education, mental health, food security, social inclusion and many more.

LP: For your Francophone colleagues working on the Femmes Expertes list, can you tell me a bit about the project and how it has been going so far?

LS & MS : Plus de 50 expertes francophones ont accepté de participer au projet et proposé des interventions sur des sujets aussi variés que les effets genrés de la pandémie, la désorganisation des chaînes d’approvisionnement alimentaire, la gestion des déchets en temps de confinement, les ressources disponibles pour les travailleuses du sexe, les impacts environnementaux de la crise ou encore le futur de l’entreprenariat, pour n’en nommer que quelques-uns. Au-delà des questions plus prévisibles en matière de santé publique ou de soins hospitaliers, par exemple, nous avons donc pu mettre de l’avant une grande diversité de points de vue et de recherches qui portent sur des aspects peu explorés de la crise actuelle. Cela montre une fois de plus que lorsque la voix des femmes n’est pas ou peu entendue, il manque une partie importante de l’histoire.

Plusieurs journalistes ont d’ailleurs affirmé que ce dossier spécial leur avait suggéré de nouveaux angles ou de nouvelles idées, et ont souligné la grande diversité et la qualité des intervenantes.

LP: Question for you as well as Francophone colleagues, do you find any differences in terms of which language media is more receptive to the push for female expertise? Has the response been different in either case?

SL: Both English and French language media have been enormously responsive and our contact lists continue to grow.

Journalists often send us enthusiastic testimonials, expressing their appreciation for the fact that we’re making it easier for them to find qualified women experts on a wide range of timely and important issues. And given the increase in media requests over the last year, we know the databases are being used.

LP: Any thoughts on how the pandemic is a good time to push for female representation in the media as well as other career equity questions?

SL: Decades of research make clear the many benefits that flow from diversity, and universities are more familiar with that data than most. And diverse sources are a hallmark of quality journalism, so it’s always a good time to push for better representation! In fact, journalists and news organizations that actively track the gender of their sources have found that doing so results in richer stories that better reflect the realities of the citizens they serve.

But because we know that women, Indigenous people, and members of visible minorities are bearing the brunt of the impacts of this pandemic, it’s especially important for the news media to be expanding their pool of sources right now. It’s not possible to responsibly cover this crisis without drawing on the perspectives of those who are feeling its effects the most.

Interestingly, our Gender Gap Tracker shows that since the beginning of the pandemic, there’s been a slight but consistent increase in the ratio of female sources quoted in online news coverage across some of Canada’s most influential news media. Much of the uptick can be credited to female public health leaders, like Dr. Theresa Tam, Dr. Bonnie Henry and Dr. Deena Hinshaw, being regularly interviewed and cited.

But women are still being quoted and interviewed just over 30% of the time, and that desperately needs to change. People now widely reject the narrowness of all-male panels at conferences; we need to expand that critique to public discourse more broadly and start expecting news reporting to consistently reflect Canada’s diversity in all its dimensions, including gender.

"It’s not possible to responsibly cover this crisis without drawing on the perspectives of those who are feeling its effects the most."

Informed Opinions’ Gender Gap Tracker powered by Simon Fraser University

LP: Any tips and tricks for female academics marketing themselves as subject matter experts?

SL: Journalists want sources who can offer clear, concise and accessible insights that are easy to picture mentally. So we train experts to let go of their specialized language and speak in everyday words and short sentences.

The idea is to make messages memorable so previously unaware people are able to understand and repeat them. The key to doing that is to replace conceptual discussions with concrete examples that help news listeners picture what you’re talking about. (For instance, health care infrastructure means nothing to most people, but we can immediately grasp the implications of longterm care facilities being understaffed and without access to protective gowns and masks.)

Academics talk for a living, but often to one another. So we advise the women we train to imagine they’re speaking to first-year students in an elective course -- or their 15-year-old nephew who has no interest in the subject. Practice helps. Having someone who isn’t in your field ask you questions and stop you when your answers lose them is useful.

We also recommend our workshop attendees pay attention to the kinds of language, analogies and communication strategies used by effective communicators -- Dr. Bonnie Henry and Chrystia Freeland are both great examples. 

Interested in knowing more? Read about how Informed Opinions was formed and check out the upcoming workshops on Media Interview Skills and Op Ed Writing! And stay tuned to our blog this season, in which we'll continue to say "yes" to women's expertise!

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