The Inside Agenda Blog

Where, Oh Where, Are All the Female Guests?

by Steve Paikin Sunday March 16, 2014

If the former presidential candidate Mitt Romney was right that he had "binders full of women" from which to choose prospective cabinet ministers, why did he have so few women in his cabinet when he was governor of Massachusetts?

We ask a variation of the same question every night when we book guests for The Agenda. Why, oh why, do we have such a tough time getting female guests on our program?

I want to be really clear about something. I think I speak for everyone at The Agenda when I say we have two simultaneous top priorities:

1. get the best guest for the topic that we possibly can (the most thoughtful, most engaging, most authoritative, most articulate, etc.)

2. given that the population we serve is half female, make sure half our guests are female too.

I repeat: when we book guests, that's our goal: gender parity.

The Agenda has been on the air for eight years and we actually care so much about striving to hit that target, we once did a program about it. You can watch it above, or see it here.  We jokingly called it "Binders Full of Women," as a takeoff on the Mitt Romney quote. The program got a ton of feedback.

But alas, we didn't get any increase in female guests on the program.

For some reason, particularly over the past few weeks, we've had a devil of a time making good on that goal. We've had far too many programs where male guests outnumber female guests three to one or four to one.  We've even had a few programs where there have been no female guests at all.

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. I frequently get and send emails to our producers at 2 o'clock in the morning. Our team works ridiculous hours to get the best program on the air we can. And still, those female guests prove to be elusive.

In that "Binders Full of Women" program we did, we learned some of the reasons why it's so hard to find female guests.  For example, if we're doing a debate on economics, 90% of economists are men. So already you're fishing in a lake where the odds are stacked against you.  And unfortunately, it's the same for foreign affairs, politicians, the sciences, labour issues, and the list goes on. The vast majority of "experts" in the subjects we cover are men.

But we've also discovered there also seems to be something in women's DNA that makes them harder to book.  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.  Women use that excuse on us all the time.

No man will say, "Sorry, can't do your show tonight, my roots are showing." I'm serious. We get that as an excuse for not coming on. But only from women.

No man will say, "Sorry can't do your show tonight, I'm not an expert in that particular aspect of the story." They'll get up to speed on the issue and come on. Women beg off. And worse, they often recommend a male colleague in their place.

You have to understand: no producer sets out to book a show with five, white, 60-year-old, male guests.  Think about it! Everyone in the current affairs business wants guests who are brilliant, but who also accurately represent the population they serve. For us, it goes beyond that. Many of us who work on The Agenda have kids. We want those kids to know that expertise doesn't just come in a 60-year-old white male package.  We want our daughters, in particular, to see that expertise can come in a female package too.

But still, despite our commitment, despite our efforts, despite EVERYTHING, there are too many days when it feels as if female guests are an endangered species. 

We are going to do another program on this soon, but first, we're seeking your advice. Is there something we're not doing that we should be doing to increase our female presence on the program? If we want to do a program but can't, despite all efforts, book a female guests, should we cancel the program?  Is that preferable to all-male programs? 

I've had numerous people over the years come to me and say, "If you need female guests, come to me and I'll fix you up." We do that. We make those calls.  We get those names. We call them. And then we get the same old excuses: gotta watch the kids, my roots are showing, I'm not the best guest, etc. 

I'm loathe to give up on our quest for gender parity on our programs. But here's the plain truth: many many more men like doing television and make themselves available to do television than women.

So what do we do?

Suggestions please.

And while you're thinking of some ideas to throw our way, here's an infographic we put together last year, on the representation of women in Canadian media.