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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.

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

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The OED’s use of the male pronoun in this definition is grammatical (if a little outdated), but based on the Today programme recently, one wonders if the BBC researchers have been taking it just a little too literally.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