Time to say no to ‘manels’ of experts

By Shannon Sampert

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on November 9, 2017

Time to say no to 'manels' of experts

I have to admit, I spent much of Saturday watching on repeat the video clip of federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna in a scrum after meeting with her provincial peers. No, it wasn’t because I was in awe of the Manitoba government’s plans for carbon tax (I’m not), but McKenna’s single-handed slicing and dicing of a Rebel reporter for using a sexist nickname to reference her was a sight to behold. Here we have a strong minister of the Crown, holding a reporter’s feet to the fire for an offensive name that is crass and does nothing to help the debate on an important topic.

But the Twitterverse was also interesting last week because Globe and Mail health columnist André Picard said no to a “manel” and started another discussion about women, representation and empowerment in this post-Harvey Weinstein fall.

What’s a manel? A manel is an all-male discussion panel and Picard was asked to participate on such a panel for the 2017 Trottier Public Science Symposium at the end of October at the McGill faculty of science in Montreal. When he found out it was an all-male panel, he said no and did so publicly, saying: “Regretfully, I’ve withdrawn from the #TrottierSymposium roundtable, because it consists of 10 men. #NoMoreManels.”

When I asked Picard why he took this stand he was straight up: “I believe in equity; I’m tired of attending, and embarrassed to participate in, panels that are non-representative of conference audiences; and because the excuse ‘no women are available’ is lazy and tiresome.”

Reports have suggested women are under-represented on television as experts as well. To explore that further, and to find out just how many female experts our local television stations used in Winnipeg, I sat down in front of my TV with a loaded PVR and calculator in hand.

Last Friday night, I counted how many times experts were used to comment and whether the expert was male or female. I didn’t count victims, people who were the topic of the story such as patients in a hospital or the anchors or reporters, unless they were acting as pundits. I was interested in who the media relied on to put the story into context, to explain and provide information.

Now this is hardly a scientific undertaking because it took place in just one night and it doesn’t go into details such as how much time experts of each gender were allowed to speak and the order in which they appeared. But it still provided some insight.

First, let’s look at Winnipeg’s No. 1 TV newscast: CTV’s News at Six, hosted by Gord Leclerc and Maralee Caruso. For the six stories in which there was an expert who commented, CTV relied on five men and four women — statistically a pretty even representation.

Compare this with CBC’s Winnipeg at 6:00 newscast anchored by Janet Stewart. The Friday newscast used experts in seven stories, plus it had a political segment that provided an overview of the week. Overall, eight of CBC’s experts were male and two were female.

Perhaps it was an off night for the CBC, but the gender differences were surprising. And it’s one story where CTV provided a female expert and the CBC failed that was also most interesting: the lead story.

On Friday, both television stations opened with the story about an Elmwood physician charged with a number of sexual assaults. While both stations interviewed the victim and the male police officer (which counted as an expert), CTV went the extra step and interviewed a female Klinic sexual assault counsellor who talked about why women would wait to report a sexual assault.

That could have been an easy way for the CBC to provide a woman’s voice as an expert, particularly on a story in which women too often are seen as only the victims.

Look, I get it. It’s easy to sit on a couch watching recorded news programs or reading through lists of panel names at conferences and complain about the lack of women’s representation. It’s tough slogging sometimes when you’re in the midst of it all, desperate to get the work done and fill the news hour and go home.

But, we do need to be careful about the picture we’re painting for a little girl watching in the wings. That girl can hear what’s being said about McKenna and then hear her stand up for herself. Or hear Picard say no to manels. Or hear a harried political science professor say broaden your scope and make women the experts.

And won’t that take some of the power away from Harvey Weinstein forever?

 

Shannon Sampert is an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Winnipeg and the director and editor in chief of EvidenceNetwork.ca.

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