Friday, 21 March 2014

Women in the Media - A Men's Issue

Steve Paikin put his foot in it. Recently, the TVO host of The Agenda penned a blogpost asking “Where, Oh Where, Are All The Female Guests?” bemoaning the continual problem that The Agenda’s producers have in finding women experts. If nothing else, the massive critical response to his post on twitter should ensure the show’s producers have enough names to match Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women.”
Paikin explained that the current affairs show wants to attract “the best guest” and, because half the population is female, they want to “make sure half our guests are female too.” They don’t, and the blog post was half mea culpe, half cri de Coeur. Why was it so hard to get women for the show? He was asking for answers but, in the meantime, he offered a few explanations himself. This is where he got himself into trouble.
Paikin spoke of the fact that women are under-represented in many of male-dominated subject areas where the show is looking for experts – economics, foreign affairs, and the sciences. He spoke of how he has actually had a potential female guest say that she couldn’t appear because her “roots were showing.” Online, all of this drew comment from readers, and often serious criticism. One of Paikin’s explanations, though, stood out.
Paikin wrote that there “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.”
He couldn’t have written something more apt to offend those who have given almost any thought to the question of who cares for children in our society and what impact this has on gender equality. That women’s childcare responsibilities could be explained away as somehow connected to women’s DNA is worthy of the kind of simplistic Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus thinking that was so dominant in the 1950s and which frequently rears its head in the world of pop psychology. The organization of childcare is a social decision. It’s connected to how families organize themselves. Decisions about childcare not only affect men’s and women’s ability to be a guest on a TV show (nice to be sure, but unpaid) but their representation in boardrooms and in legislatures.
On a purely practical level it’s easy to sympathize with Paikin. The Agenda needs guests for shows today and tomorrow. Whatever the reason for women not pushing themselves forward (cultural/structural or biological), his problem remains: he doesn’t have enough female guests and he is committed to achieving gender parity.
Yet with gender, it’s the long-game that really counts. In this long-game, the language of DNA and the suggestion that women are “just like that”, that they simply take care of the children, and the idea that taking care of the children is an excuse (as opposed to a real labour that someone must do) is a serious impediment to the kind of equality that Paikin and all at The Agenda want to achieve.
I’ve taught gender history at university for a number of years and I almost always begin my classes by talking about a 1939 issue of Parents magazine. In an article titled “What Color For Your Baby?” the magazine advised parents to dress little boys in pink and little girls in blue. Invariably this blows my students’ minds. It shouldn’t. Many of the ideas we have about gender – ideas we assume are natural and fixed – are not.  
Not that you would know this from any trip to a children’s clothing or toy store where boys and girls items are more separated than blacks and whites in apartheid South Africa. Yet just try convincing many people that there is nothing natural about the blue/pink divide and you’ll get an earful of comments like “it’s just the way it is.” When I tell people that I wrote a book on the history of masculinity, I get polite people telling me why boys and girls are the way they are. I can give as many examples of how ideas about gender have changed – from Victorian doctors thinking sports ruined women for childbirth to ideas that women shouldn’t vote because they weren’t sufficiently rational – and most will accept this as a shame.
The real crux comes when we talk about boys. Try suggesting that our ideas about what boys can and should be can also change and you run into a lot more trouble.
The major issue that Steve Paikin’s comments raise isn’t about women: it’s about men. Certainly it’s in women’s DNA to at least have the capacity to give birth to children. But once those children are born, it’s a social decision between men and women about who cares for them. When women say they don’t have time to appear on a TV show because they have to take care of the children, it’s not an excuse. It’s a socially sanctioned dilemma. We should all be concerned. And the people whose “excuses” most need to be questioned aren’t the women involved: it’s the fathers.

 Note: I've appeared on The Agenda and loved the experience. Glad to see that the show devoted a special episode to the matter that you can watch above.

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