Image via The Agenda's YouTube channel.
"Where, Oh Where, Are All The Female Guests?” started out well enough. After questions about the lack of diversity on TheAgenda, anchor and senior editor Steve Paikin took his exasperation online. The producers, he wrote, are committed to gender parity, having tried for years to include more women on the show. When that effort didn’t seem to pay off, they invited Armine Yalnizyan, Shari Graydon, Kathy English and Jordan Peterson onto the program in 2012 for a discussion about the underrepresentation of women in the media.
Still, the panels remained overwhelmingly white and male.
“Despite our commitment, despite our efforts, despite EVERYTHING, there are too many days when it feels as if female guests are an endangered species,” Paikin wrote.
From there, his weekend post was a good example of how not to address criticism about gender disparity on television. He says the responses from queried guests (needing to find someone to take care of their children, visible roots, not feeling qualified enough to speak) are excuses, without addressing the larger issue of sexism behind the problem. Maybe question whom his male guests rely on to watch their children and why his female guests can’t seem to find the same support. Why not discuss the reason women are more likely to pass on a professional opportunity out of concern for their appearance?
The show’s website followed the debate online and collected some of the responses on its website, welcoming more feedback in the future. But just as Paikin’s 2012 panel failed to produce significant results overnight, the events of this past weekend won’t do much, without changes to the media climate as well.
In his post, Paikin points out that women are underrepresented in areas covered on The Agenda, writing: “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.” While politics, foreign affairs, economics and sciences are important topics of discussion, it’s also valid to question why subjects that might draw more women to the show and elsewhere aren’t covered as thoroughly on television or in print.
The issue isn’t just that women are a minority in the aforementioned fields; it’s also that so-called “women’s interests” are considered fluff. In her June 2013 article “Can Women’s Magazines Do Serious Journalism?” for The New Republic,Jessica Groseinvestigated why so few women’s magazines are nominated for prestigious awards. Despite these publications’ popularity, she found many women—herself included— downplay their own contributions or refuse to write for the magazines altogether. Not that The Agenda should drastically alter the focus of their show, but it might help to encourage editorial input from the women they invite on the program.
The public simultaneously expects less and demands more of women, who face more hostility and scrutiny when they venture into male-dominated spaces. When writer and activist Janet Mock agreed to an interview with Piers Morgan last month, she was treated so badly by the journalist that it warranted a follow-up interview, seemingly to discuss her concerns; it was more of an opportunity for Morgan to loudly defend himself to his critics. And it’s not just guests. Both Amanda Hess at the Pacific Standard and Martin Robbins at Vicewrote in January about the abuse women risk when they publish or debate online. “A woman doesn’t even need to occupy a professional writing perch at a prominent platform to become a target,” Hess wrote.
The question shouldn’t be how do we convince more women to do interviews, but why women are reluctant or unwilling to participate in public discourse. That’s the approach the website Informed Opinions took when it came to Paikin’s defense on Tuesday. It reports that among the reasons women decline interview requests are time constraints, self-doubt and lack of trust in the media. (These concerns came up on The Agenda two years ago, as well.)
Paikin may have responded with good intentions, but it was a missed opportunity to ask some key questions (again)—ones that would likely do more to address gender disparity on television than a defensive blog post. The Agenda will devote another show to the issue on March 28.
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