There’s a lack of opportunity, not expert women, finds Laura Cress.
Academics are a good example of the sort of experts wanted by the media. So what could universities do to ensure that women as well as men are used in their areas of expertise?
Of the 30 universities that received Broadcast’s questionnaire (see box below), only five replied: Oxford, Bristol, Bath, Lancaster and Glasgow.
Oxford’s reply was typical: it has thousands of academics and no lack of female experts to put forward. But vice-chancellors are usually its main spokespeople. There are 90 of them. How many are men? 77.
Bristol University’s spokesman said: “It all depends on the story, whether it’s their area, and their availability.”
It also provided a link to its list of experts (http://www.bris.ac.uk/media/experts), which shows that for several subjects, it has more than one expert available. Those seeking an expert on psychology, for example, can chose from three: two male and one female.
So perhaps the question is not ‘do universities have females who can talk about their expertise on a subject?’ but ‘do universities have females who are willing to talk about their expertise on a subject?’ Or even: ‘do broadcasters have a tendency to choose men when women are available?’
When it comes to whether women are willing to appear on TV, there does seem to be a confidence issue. One press officer I spoke to confided that he had more trouble persuading female academics to take part. He believes the only way this will change is by improving their confidence through training.
TV producer Claire Richmond recently wrote about the benefits of media training for experts (Broadcast, 23.03.12).
The universities confirmed that all of their vice-chancellors and senior press officers have been media trained, and so have many of the academic experts, but it isn’t high on their list of priorities.
Maybe it should be. One female academic I spoke to made the point that the academic world is very competitive on a personal level and the peer group review system can be cut-throat, so you need to be super-confident to talk about your expertise on TV and radio.
“Men and masculine values do dominate academia, and in most academic gatherings, you’ll see the men holding the floor,” she said. “It’s no wonder women academics are backward in coming forward.”
So should university press teams try harder to persuade them? What about broadcasters’ requests for speakers? Glasgow University put it baldly: “Broadcasters tend to go for old favourites whom they know can perform well.”
There is nothing unusual about choosing someone who you know has been a good speaker before – it’s what broadcasters do – but these ‘old favourites’ are usually men.
In terms of availability, a spokesperson for Bath University said that as well as being an easy commute to London, it is near to Bristol, which acts a regional hub for media output. On Bath’s campus is a working TV studio and an ISDN line for radio interviews. Universities are usually technical hubs and there’s no reason why female academics should not do ‘down-the -line’ interviews from their base.
So all the ingredients appear to in place for female experts from universities to be asked to appear on TV; the only thing needed is greater collaboration between the expert and the media.
Female experts should consider the media training available to them, and make themselves more available for interview requests. And the media shouldn’t constantly pick the same person just because it’s easy. Above all, a fresh voice could make for a much more interesting interview.
Laura Cress is a student at City University
1. Who is your main spokesperson?
2. Do you have other senior people who could also speak, who are female?
3. Have they had media training?
4. Would they be prepared to do a live interview or take part in a live studio debate?
5. Are you aware that broadcasters are seeking people from diverse backgrounds to speak as ‘experts’ within news and current affairs programmes?
6. How likely are you to put such individuals forward?
7. Sky and Channel 4 are offering training. Do you have anyone you could put forward?
8. Where are you based and how easy would it be to get your spokespeople to London for a TV appearance?