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The OED’s use of the male pronoun in this definition is grammatical (if a little outdated), but based on the Today programme recently, one wonders if the BBC researchers have been taking it just a little too literally.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

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David had taken the same tablets for years. Why the sudden side effects?

Long-term medication keeps changing its appearance – round white tablets one month, red ovals the next, with different packaging to boot.

David had been getting bouts of faintness and dizziness for the past week. He said it was exactly like the turns he used to get before he’d had his pacemaker inserted. A malfunctioning pacemaker didn’t sound too good, so I told him I’d pop in at lunchtime.

Everything was in good order. He was recovering from a nasty cough, though, so I wondered aloud if, at the age of 82, he might just be feeling weak from having fought that off. I suggested he let me know if things didn’t settle.

I imagined he would give it a week or two, but the following day there was another visit request. Apparently he’d had a further turn that morning. The carer hadn’t liked the look of him so she’d rung the surgery.

Once again, he was back to normal by the time I got there. I quizzed him further. The symptoms came on when he got up from the sofa, or if bending down for something, suggesting his blood pressure might be falling with the change in posture. I checked the medication listed in his notes: eight different drugs, at least two of which could cause that problem. But David had been taking the same tablets for years; why would he suddenly develop side effects now?

I thought I’d better establish if his blood pressure was dropping. I got him to stand, and measured it repeatedly over a period of several minutes. Not a hint of a fall. And nor did he now feel in the slightest bit unwell. I was stumped. David’s wife had been watching proceedings from her armchair. “Mind you,” she said, “it only happens mid-morning.”

The specific timing made me pause. I asked to see his tablets. David passed me a carrier bag of boxes. I went through them methodically, cross-referencing each one to his notes.

“Well, there’s your trouble,” I said, holding out a couple of the packets. One was emblazoned with the name “Diffundox”, the other “Prosurin”. “They’re actually the same thing.”

Every medication has two names, a brand name and a generic one – both Diffundox and Prosurin are brand names of a medication known generically as tamsulosin, which improves weak urinary flow in men with enlarged prostates. Doctors are encouraged to prescribe generically in almost all circumstances – if I put “tamsulosin” on a prescription, the pharmacist can supply the best value generic available at that time, but if I specify a brand name they’re obliged to dispense that particular one irrespective of cost.

Generic prescribing is good for the NHS drug budget, but it can be horribly confusing for patients. Long-term medication keeps changing its appearance – round white tablets one month, red ovals the next, with different packaging to boot. And while the box always has the generic name on it somewhere, it’s much less prominent than the brand name. With so many patients on multiple medications, all of which are subject to chopping and changing between generics, it’s no wonder mix-ups occur. Couple that with doctors forever stopping and starting drugs and adjusting doses, and you start to get some inkling of quite how much potential there is for error.

I said to David that, at some point the previous week, two different brands of tamsulosin must have found their way into his bag. They looked for all the world like different medications to him, with the result that he was inadvertently taking a double dose every morning. The postural drops in his blood pressure were making him distinctly unwell, but were wearing off after a few hours.

Even though I tried to explain things clearly, David looked baffled that I, an apparently sane and rational being, seemed to be suggesting that two self-evidently different tablets were somehow the same. The arcane world of drug pricing and generic substitution was clearly not something he had much interest in exploring. So, I pocketed one of the aberrant packets of pills, returned the rest, and told him he would feel much better the next day. I’m glad to say he did. 

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game