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Who’s the best expert for the job?

Who’s the best expert for the job?

As someone who works with experts in the media on a daily basis I was intrigued to see that the BBC has announced that it aims to have an equal gender split of the expert contributors it features on its news, current affairs and topical programmes by 2019. There is no doubt that male expert contributors are over-represented in media globally and Australia is no different, with one ABC survey conducted in late 2015 finding just 26% of the voices in their news coverage came from women and like the BBC, the ABC has also said it will look to achieve a greater balance of voices in their programs and news coverage.  The BBC plan had me thinking though – is their drive for gender diversity on the right track? How might a 50/50 balance be achieved and how does it further the diversity cause? And if women are underrepresented as expert commentators in our media, why might that be the case?

We’re asked to recommend experts on a daily basis from media all over the country. Not once, in my almost two years with Media Stable, has the media requested a specific gender for their needs. And not once, have I considered whether a male or a female expert might be better suited based on their gender. We recommend on ability, suitability, experience and how well the expert meets the criteria set by the media. I wonder how our female experts would feel if they were selected for a media appearance based purely on their gender and not their background, experience and expertise? And conversely, how would male experts feel if they missed out purely because they were a man?

Gender equity and diversity is an issue that needs addressing in many aspects of society but the BBC’s experiment, in my opinion, approaches the problem from the wrong side of the equation.  My belief is that equity is achieved by acknowledging that women and men are equal and are both capable of doing the same job or carrying out the same role to the same standard. It’s not achieved by artificially skewing or inflating numbers to fill a feel good 50/50 quota. Having said that, one possible positive outcome from the BBC target is that it may encourage producers and journalists to delve that little bit deeper in uncovering female talent, rather than just hitting up their regular go-to expert. As a producer of talk radio programs for many years, I can’t say that the issue of an expert’s gender was ever a consideration when finding talent. Imposing expert gender ratios on an industry like the media is fraught with difficulty and danger. Talent and expertise is genderless, in my view.

Our own stable of experts is split around 54% to 46% in favour of men and in recent years we’ve witnessed a large number of women wanting to take the lead on issues in and around their areas of expertise. This growth is a more organic and meaningful way to reach a point where the number of women expert contributors equals that of men.

If we’re serious about addressing expert gender equality in the media perhaps we should start by looking more closely at some of the larger and most influential organisations and structures in Australia. Take for example the boardrooms of ASX 200 listed companies, where women make up 26% of board members or our own Federal cabinet where women hold just 24% of ministerial positions. If we’re to see more women driving discussions and leading important conversations in the media, this is where the change needs to begin.

So who is the best expert for the job? The one who responds quickly to the call for comment. The one who stays abreast of what’s happening in their industry and follows the news. The one who has belief in their ability and a strength of conviction in their opinions. The one who’s “good talent” and flexible. The one who has genuine desire to be a voice in the media and the one who is qualified and respected by their professional peers – that’s who.

By John Solvander, Director of Media Engagement, Media Stable.

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