Finding female experts - doing the BBC's job for them

Women are underrepresented on the airwaves. Broadcasters say they can’t find female experts. The founders of "The Women's Room", a new index of female talking heads, say they're just not looking hard enough.

Expert, n. “One whose special knowledge or skill causes him to be regarded as an authority; a specialist.”

The OED’s use of the male pronoun in this definition is grammatical (if a little outdated), but based on the Today programme recently, one wonders if the BBC researchers have been taking it just a little too literally.

On last Monday’s Today programme, one of the segments focused on a report in the Daily Telegraph: apparently the number of girls under 16 being given contraceptive injections without their parents knowledge has increased. Understandably, the Daily Telegraph is upset about this. And so is Dr Anthony Seldon, headmaster of Wellington College, one of the “experts” that the BBC got in to debate this emotive issue.

Now, there is no disputing that Seldon is indeed an expert. He is, in fact, “an authority on contemporary British history”, having written or edited “over 25 books on contemporary history, politics and education”. Impressive stuff. The thing is, nowhere does his expansive biography mention any expertise whatsoever in contraception, pregnancy or teenage girls. What it does mention is that Seldon “appears regularly on television and radio and in the press”. He has a name, he has a voice, he is a “him”; Seldon is therefore worth listening to.

Move on to Tuesday and the Today programme has another debate about something that affects women: breast cancer. This time two women actually are invited to speak about their experiences. And when they’ve done telling us their stories, the male presenter says, “Thank you both for those experiences, let me turn now to Professor Sir Mike Richards who is the national cancer director”. Message? Women are here for anecdotal evidence; now “here comes [the man with] the science!”

To be fair to the BBC, they did try to find a female expert for the breast cancer segment. We know this because they told us they did – and were very disappointed not to have found one. The problem is, they obviously didn’t try very hard, because I found a number of female breast cancer and contraceptive specialists in about ten minutes on Twitter. After sending out one tweet. Not exactly back-breaking work. (Gisa job?)

This brings us to two questions: what do people have to be to count in the BBC’s definition of “expert”, and where is the BBC looking when trying to find these rarefied people? Monday and Tuesday’s editions of the Today programme give us the answer to both these questions. And it doesn’t look very good for women.

To start with breast cancer, the structure of the segment sent out a very clear message that not only divided “experience” and “expertise”, but also placed them in a hierarchy, whereby being an expert trumped experience. The women were not asked to comment on the actual report and its impact; that was left to the professor. This perhaps seems a no-brainer, but I would ask you to consider two things. First, this report was not technical. It required no specialist “academic” knowledge. Arguably in this instance, experience should be considered far more important than expertise, because the report highlights the distress that women feel upon being told that they have cancer, and weighs it against the danger of them actually having it. Who better to comment on that than women who have actually experienced that moment? And second, George Osborne considers himself an expert on the economy.

And the concept of “considers himself” is potentially crucial here. Because there can be little doubt that men are far more likely to consider themselves worth listening to – numerous studies highlight this, including the BBC’s own research on the numbers of each gender who call in to Any Answers. I don’t know if the BBC called a headmistress of an expensive girls’ boarding school to talk about teenage contraception, but statistics suggest that she would have been less likely to say yes – less likely to consider herself an “expert”. As someone who had actually at one point been a teenage girl she would have been preferable to Seldon; nevertheless, she would have been right not to consider herself an expert, unless she had a good knowledge of the type of girls who are most likely to be needing contraception at this young age.

Seldon’s analysis showed a woeful lack of knowledge on this topic; expert he was not. His frame of reference was absurdly narrow, talking exclusively about the “totally special relationship” between parents and children, in which the state should not intrude. I’m sure Seldon does have a special relationship with his children, and I’m sure many of the teenage girls at his school also have a special relationship with their parents. But what about other teenage girls? What about the young teenage girls who live in care homes, like those caught up in the Rochdale paedophile ring? What about teenage girls who live in deprived areas where they are far more likely to experience sexual violence and abuse – even from their own parents? What about the young teenage girls involved in prostitution.

Seldon’s comments demonstrate an utter lack of understanding about the existence and experience of these girls – and the reasons why they might have sex. I spoke to a social worker with experience working with girl gangs about the reasons girls have sex – and none of them are about having fun; rather they are a perpetuation of gender power relations. Girls tend to have sex when they are teenagers because they feel that it will provide them with love and affection that is otherwise missing from their lives. They have sex because it’s expected of them, because they want to be part of something, because they don’t want to be left out. They have sex because in a world where women are valued for little other than their “erotic capital” it gives them a sense of power and control.

But the reality is that they very often lack any control whatsoever: one girl insisted that she had a choice over whether or not she slept with a boy. Her choice was between sleeping with him and his burning down her mother’s house.

Knowledge of this reality should be a prerequisite for anyone discussing these matters – whether through experience or education. There are women out there who have both experience and expertise – and they’re really not hard to find, as demonstrated by the immediate and huge response to “The Women’s Room”, a website set up this week intended to do the BBC’s work for them.

The idea was hatched out in response to a tweet from Catherine Smith of The Pink Project, who exasperatedly mooted the idea of setting up a database of female experts. I enthusiastically said we absolutely should, and an bona fide idea was born. Our backgrounds in gender research provide a certain basis for this idea, however it is really Catherine’s experience with The Pink Project that provides an empirical basis for its validity.

The Pink Project was set up to answer a systemic knowledge gap regarding the specific needs of girls, and their distinct pathways into offending. As with the media’s attitude to “experts”, the care system was taking a “one size fits all” approach to young offenders – with the size being male. The Pink Project addresses this institutional bias through gender responsive training, which acknowledges that the majority of vulnerable girls and women have experienced trauma; if you like, it does what the BBC doesn’t want to do and addresses inequities rather than replicating them. What is particularly notable about the training that The Pink Project provides is its emphasis on the personal experience of those who work with girls, both prior to and during training – in short, The Pink Project recognises the importance of experience – including non-professional experience.

This is one of the key aims of The Women’s Room. We want to interrogate what we mean by “expert”. We want to challenge the hierarchical division between expertise and experience. And most of all, we want to send a message to the media at large, and the BBC in particular: they say they can’t find female experts. We say, you’re just not looking hard enough.

This post was originally published at Week Woman. You can find the list of experts set up by Caroline and Catherine Smith here at The Women’s Room

What do people have to be to count in the BBC’s definition of “expert”? Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

Photo: Getty
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The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.