The Inside Agenda Blog

Do We Need "Binders Full of Women"?

by Mary Taws Thursday November 15, 2012

The morning after I produced a program on the U.S. presidential election results, I received a voicemail from a male viewer. 

Here's some of what he had to say:

While America has rejected the politics of old white men, they found a haven on The Agenda. I'm seeing the same old tired white men on your show. ... Why are there no younger people or young people of colour? Why is it always old white guys and Janice Stein?  

I called him back later that morning and we had what I felt was a fruitful conversation about this issue. I told him I wasn't entirely pleased with the optics of the program, either. Although the guests were qualified and had very interesting insights to share, it wasn't ideal to have four white men discussing the GOP's relationship with the Hispanic and African-American communities, or for that matter pontificating about why and how women vote.

Over the next few days, I received other messages from viewers, specifically about the underrepresentation of women on the panel.  

I told these viewers I had indeed booked a female expert in Washington, D.C. who, unfortunately, fell ill and was unable to attend. Once I got word that she couldn't make it, I went through every academic institution I could think of in major cities to book a female expert, either in Washington or here in our Toronto studios. I sought advice from my colleagues and went through dozens upon dozens of potential female guests. In most cases, I didn't hear back. A handful of these female experts understandably responded by saying, "It's a busy day and I've made commitments to speak on other programs." 

The Agenda's Editorial Meeting

But the response I found to be the most common -- and the most disheartening -- was the following: "I'm not the right person." These women had the necessary qualifications. They were well-informed and eloquent, too. Yet for one reason or another, these highly-capable women did not feel they were the right fit to join us on The Agenda. It's been my experience and that of my colleagues that many men with the same level of experience as women agree to be on the program almost immediately upon being asked. 

This isn't the first time we've had this problem at The Agenda, and it seems we're not alone in this struggle. study by Informed Opinions reported: "Scholars wrote 31% of the op eds in our sample -- the largest contributors of any professional group -- but only 14% of the 113 academics were women."

We at The Agenda have often discussed internally the challenge of making sure there is good female representation on our programs and why sometimes it proves to be so difficult. So we decided to share some of the obstacles we face in booking women on the program. Below are some of the issues around women and punditry that we discussed at our editorial meeting last week. 

Sheer Numbers

A number of our guests are typically professionals in the following fields: academia, journalism, business, and politics. The number of women in these fields is still not completely 50-50. Statistics Canada provides a tab to manipulate labour force data in various industries by gender. The most up-to-date data shows the number of men and women in a variety of industries from 2008 to 2011. 


As Steve Paikin wrote in March 2011, there's a double standard when it comes to how we assess the priorities of female professionals versus the priorities of their male colleagues. He wrote about this in the context of headlines about then-incoming British Columbia Premier Christy Clark. The new premier of B.C. was described as a "working-mother" and reporters questioned if she'd be able to save the Liberals and find time for her young son. This is a double standard -- no question about it. There's also a repeating pattern in our search for more female guests: disproportionately more women have declined participating due to competing priorities

The Hyper-Specialization of Academia 

There's also a sense among some Agenda producers that public intellectuals are becoming a thing of the past. The academics who could speak generally about a broader topic are fewer and further between. Instead, you have academics that are only comfortable speaking publicly about their very narrow area of expertise, which is often so specialized as to be too obscure and esoteric, even for a highly intellectual television audience. The Harvard Business Review, and many other publications, have pointed out this hyper-specialization in academia. 

The Medium 

In our increasingly visual world, this is a big concern for a lot of potential guests, both male and female. Coming out in front of the camera is not only a bigger time commitment for many busy professionals -- it's also uncharted territory for many of the new female experts we invite to be on the program. I can recall at least three instances when I've had a great conversation with a potential female guest, but when they hear that we're a television program, they decline to participate. Anecdotally, a majority of Agenda producers have found this to be less true for men. 

"I'm not sure I'm the right person ..."

The sense of producers on The Agenda is that men seem to be more willing to pontificate and address something that is tangentially related to what they do. Other journalists, like Kate Heartfield of the Ottawa Citizen, have written about the issue of women not feeling qualified. 



As mentioned earlier, if women are not represented enough in the media, this matters: television is a new experience for some of the women we're trying to book, and there isn't always a willingness -- on their end -- to speak more generally about a topic that isn't directly related to their research. This last problem ties into the specialization of academia. 

"Binders Full of Women"

However ineloquently he put it, maybe Mitt Romney was right. Maybe we do need some way of supporting and finding qualified women. It's not just the usual industry gender-gap arguments -- opportunities aren't out there, gender bias in the workplace, etc. Women are in the lines of work that The Agenda regularly pulls guests from: academia, journalism, politics, business and finance, and the sciences. These women are experienced. They are qualified. They have several degrees and years of work experience under their belts. But for a variety of reasons, they don't always want to come out in front of the camera. 

As we work to improve the representation of women on the program, we'd like your feedback on this issue. Feel free to share your thoughts, either on TwitterFacebook, or in the comments section below.