The day Pope Francis was elected, I got an email from local news asking me to be on a panel to discuss the new papacy. I demurred. First, I’m not really an expert on twenty-first century Catholicism. Oh, I know the macro just fine, but I don’t have the whole cast of characters memorized. On live TV, I don’t have time to pause, check, and think, before I’m called upon. Second, my wife was working late that night and I had to pick up the kids and make dinner.
In a recent blog-post, Melonie Fullick, one of my favorite writers on language and higher ed, took apart a Canadian conversation about the lack of women on an important television show. The author, Steve Paikin of The Agenda, had written a piece acknowledging the problem and basically blaming women for their own absence. I find it ironic that I missed my one chance so far to appear on TV as a talking head (I’ve done radio; I like radio; I might not even be wearing trousers) for two of the reasons that Paikin cites as gendered.
Here’s Fullick’s key commentary.
First, Paikin argues that “no man will ever say, “Sorry, can’t do your show tonight, I’m taking care of my kids.” The man will find someone to take care of his kids so he can appear on a TV show. Women use that excuse on us all the time” (emphasis added). So apparently, we can comfortably ignore the entrenched, gendered inequalities in domestic work and especially in child care. While it’s true that men have been taking on more parenting responsibilities over time, the ongoing, underlying assumption – a systemic one, as described in this excellent post by Sarah Mann – is that women are responsible for child care. So given the logistics involved, as well as cultural and relational pressures and expectations, how can this be described as an “excuse”?
The post continues: “No man will say, “Sorry, can’t do your show tonight, my roots are showing.” I’m serious. We get that as an excuse […] But only from women.” The glaring omission here? There’s no mention of the way that women politicians, journalists, activists, professors, and other public figures are subjected to public judgement based on their looks (and sexuality), as opposed to the work they do….
Paikin also states: “No man will say, “Sorry can’t do your show tonight, I’m not an expert in that particular aspect of the story.” They’ll get up to speed on the issue and come on. Women beg off.” Research has indeed indicated that women are less keen to speak to an area beyond their immediate expertise, but that might have something to do with the way women’s expertise is constantly questioned and challenged in overt and irrelevant ways (for example…by criticizing their looks).
Two things are going on here, I think.
First, Fullick is acknowledging that Paikin may be in fact honestly recounting his experiences trying to book women on the air, but failing to acknowledge the patriarchal structures that lead to these experiences. Instead, Paikin just blames the women. This is true so much more broadly than TV bookings, as Fullick indicates. Men (and some women) who mean well, or at least think they mean well, shrug and say that the women just don’t want to be here! Or that women need to be more confident and fake it like men do (faking it is NOT a virtue, being a generalist is not necessarily good). Or that women need to be less vain about their hair. Fullick, I think, takes those “excuses” apart very nicely.
Second, I wonder how many men have said no because they needed to take care of the kids, but just didn’t bother saying it, feeling comfortable in their male privilege that they don’t need an excuse. Or who didn’t have expertise in a topic, and just begged off. I can’t be the only man who thinks – not my topic & gotta make dinner – when invited onto television. I also wonder whether Paikin even thought to ask.
It’s not that Paikin is wrong to point out a gender gap – of course not. This isn’t about whether he and his colleagues are “trying hard enough” or not; and I’ve tried to explain here, it’s about the way the problem’s being framed. Paikin’s arguments just can’t get past the descriptive notion of “choices” to the point of addressing the structural and cultural issues that inform them.
Framing is everything here. I’d have more to say, but I have to go make breakfast for the kids. I won’t tell Paikin that if he calls to ask though.