Women can be experts, too

The past several months has seen an unprecedented number of women coming forward to speak out about sexual violence and harassment they have experienced in their professional lives. The jury is still out about whether the courage these women have shown will lead to the systemic change that is needed to end male violence against women or whether, in the end, the issue will be swept under the carpet once again, albeit after some individual men have been held to account for their actions.

Despite the leadership of women’s voices on this issue, there are many areas where women’s knowledge, opinions and ideas are still seriously under-represented.

Women know about scientific things!

A recent article by Ed Yong in The Atlantic looked at one reporter’s work to address the gender imbalance in his interviews for articles in the field of science:

“In December 2015, I wrote a story about the potential of the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR. That piece, based on a conference that I attended in Washington, D.C., quoted six men and one woman. The six men included five scientists and one historian, all quoted for their professional expertise. The one woman was a communications director at a tissue bank organization, and her quote was about her experience as the mother of a child with a genetic disease.”

Not satisfied with his own performance as a writer, Yong set out to increase his use of women as experts in his writing. As he said of himself, noting that he cares about equality: “I assumed that my passive concern would be enough. Passive concern never is.”

He began to search consciously for women to interview and tracked his progress in a spreadsheet. Two years later, the proportion of women who have a voice in his articles has risen from about 24 percent to, consistently, around 50 percent.

Time well spent

He discovered that it does take more time to find women to interview; perhaps because there are still fewer women than men working in the field of science; perhaps because those women are overburdened with demands on their time; perhaps because women are more likely to decline an interview because they don’t think they are the right person for the job.

However, while it takes more time, it is not much time – about 15 minutes per article, according to Yong, which in his work comes to a grand total of about one hour per week.

Of course, women’s expert voices are not just missing in the world of science. Women are under-interviewed in almost every field other than those traditionally dominated by women. Even in my field – violence against women – I am struck time and time again by how often men’s opinions are seen as “more expert,” more “objective” and certainly more authoritative.

Amplifying women’s voices

In Canada, an organization called Informed Opinions is working to address this inequity. Formed in 2010 by Shari Graydon, a former newspaper columnist, TV producer and media commentator, Informed Opinions’ mission is to amplify women’s voices for a more democratic Canada. As the organization’s website notes, women make up more than 60% of university graduates and hold senior positions in many fields, yet our voices make up only 29% of those quoted by media.

The organization’s database provides information about hundreds of women (I counted 101 names by the time I got the end of the letter “C”) with expertise in countless fields.

Informed Opinions offers workshops to assist women increase their capacity and confidence to become media spokespeople. Journalists who sign up for the mailing list can stay up to date as new experts are added to the website.

And, as proof of its commitment to women’s wisdom, you don’t have to be asked or nominated to have your name put in the database; you just have to think you have expertise that is worth sharing.

As Audre Lorde wrote:

“When we speak, we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.”

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