Education / Social issues

Women of Opinion: Steve Paikin wants to save you!

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Photo courtesy of Informed Opinion

The high priest of TVO’s intelligentsia and frontman of gab-fest The Agenda with Steve Paikin set Twitter ablaze earlier this week when he ‘daddied’ the female population deplored the lack of lady experts and pundits willing to speak up on political and civic issues on-camera,  writing:

“We’ve also discovered there also seems to be something in women’s DNA that makes them harder to book.  No man will say, “Sorry, can’t do your show tonight, my roots are showing.” I’m serious. We get that as an excuse for not coming on. But only from women.

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. And worse, they often recommend a male colleague in their place.”

*Gasp* *Pearls clutched*

DNA?  Undyed roots?  Kids as an ‘excuse’? Begging off?

Paikin’s Twitter account, I reasoned, must have been hacked, or perhaps an inexperienced member of his production team had gone rogue.  Was this the same man who moderates our national electoral debates?  The man for whom I had been a laptop warrior, tirelessly retweeting him during the police crackdown of Toronto’s G8?  The man who leads civic-minded Ontarians in collective exercises of deep-thinking-and-thoughtful-beard-stroking?

Yes.  It’s him.  For realsies.

Paikin’s remarks sparked a Twitter firestorm, thrusting #WomenOnlyExcusesForPaikin, a movement initiated by the intrepid Naomi Sayers (aka Naomi Kwe; @kwetoday; and read her fascinating insights into the hashtag), into the Canadian zeitgeist and prompting sassy comebacks from both men and women:

Paikin has set out to save the ladies from themselves, writing: “Despite our commitment, despite our efforts, despite EVERYTHING, there are too many days when it feels as if female guests are an endangered species.”

Endangered species.  Women of Opinion, you need a telethon with weepy appeals, because much like the polar bear or the honey bee, you need to be saved.

And Paikin appeared shocked by the Twittersphere’s annoyed response, arguing, “I’m making an effort here. Why so much snark?”

And: “oh c’mon. stop parsing. you know what we’re about. we’re trying to fix a problem. be helpful, not nitpicky.”

And: “I’m making a genuine effort at something here and so much of the feedback is such typical noise.”

Noise. Ladies, you’re making noise.  Now be quiet, Daddy’s trying to give you a voice.

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Photo courtesy of The Social

But in some respects, Paikin is right: striving for gender parity and cultural diversity on the Canadian media landscape is a cultural imperative.  And although we can look to Kady O’Malley, Janice Gross-Stein, Lainey Lui, Céline Galipeau, Chantal Hébert, Amanda Lang, Antonia Maioni, and many others, we continue to be underrepresented on the media landscape: Women account for 20% of columns and guest commentary in leading Canadian papers, and 30% of experts on leading national talk shows.

In her Thought Out Loud essay, The Ottawa Citizen’s Kate Heartfield explored some of the societal reasons that women shy away from opinion and punditry.  Heartfield, who mentors women in the art of opinion for Katie Orenstein’s The OpEd Project and Shari Graydon’s Informed Opinions, writes: “Both have told me that the first step in the process is convincing women to think of themselves as experts – convincing them they have something valuable to say.”

“I think (Paikin) he was actually trying to make the same points I did in my Thought Out Loud essay but just phrased them a bit poorly,” Heartfield told Elle Beaver.  “At least Paikin identified the problem and is trying to change it, although as I said, some of his word choices were unfortunate and gave the impression he was trying to justify the status quo rather than understand and change it.”

And as The Social’s Lainey Lui pointed out on yesterday’s debate, Paikin reopened an important discussion, but no one was paying attention because of his shame-and-blame approach.  Incidentally, Paikin reached out for Lui to come debate the issue on The Agenda, showing some willingness to be taken to task.  Lui sassily replied that she’d be happy to come with ‘hair and makeup ready.’

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Photo courtesy of Collin McConnell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The Toronto Star’s Antonia Zerbisias, who actively participated in the #WomenOnlyExcusesForPaikin movement, affirms that there is no shortage of women in punditry, and that some of the country’s best-known columnists, like Margaret Wente, Rosie DiManno, and Christie Blatchford, are women.

“It is true that women may be more reluctant to appear on TV for a number of reasons,” Zerbisias tells Elle Beaver.  “My problem with how Paikin put it is that he did not consider the societal, systemic and structural reasons for that reluctance. What he dismisses with a flippant comment about dark roots is about much more than that. It’s about how women who appear on TV are expected to look a certain way and, for those of us who do not fit that expectation, and who, in the Internet age, are targets for misogynistic trolling, wanting to remain in a safe zone.”

Ultimately, the means Paikin adopted to school Canadian women in an attempt to close the gender gap are grossly antiquated and reflects a privileged world-view – the view of someone who probably has a clothing/beauty budget, has perhaps never been trolled for his views and/or looks, and likely had the support of a spouse so he could actually take the time to take to the mic.  And while Paikin raised an important issue, his refusal to understand that the tone he used to ‘save’ Women of Opinion, that elusive ‘endangered species’ with the flawed DNA, is actually a big part of the problem.  Because we’re tired of having people talk down to us.

As @FamilyRetainer tweeted

But Paikin, Zerbisias, and Heartfield are right: we have something valuable to say.

Put up your hands ladies, bring your kids to set (hand them off to a producer – they won’t mind!), and be heard.  And know that if/when the trolls come calling – whether they’re pointing out your crow’s feet, or how your pantsuit makes you look fat, or even threatening you with violence, we’ll have your back.

And we might just follow in your footsteps.

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4 thoughts on “Women of Opinion: Steve Paikin wants to save you!

  1. I saw the follow up to this on TVO tonight and Steve Paikin was on the hot seat explaining how the women he works with had something to say about that episode and his choice of words as did many others online, etc….

    So it was good he sat and let women come on the show and respond to those ignorant comments. However, I did not hear an apology from him which should have been forthcoming, especially after offending so many women.

    Perhaps I missed it as I wasn’t aware of the aforementioned twitter storm?

    Either way, if they want more women to come on the show, then why don’t they invest in providing child care and other services to help enable them to, if in fact these are the reasons that they are not coming on.

    As stated in your article, it goes well beyond that.

  2. Dear Clear Wind: Thank you for your comment and for adding your voice to the debate! I agree with you – it was important that Steve Paikin address the issue head on, which he did on Wednesday night: http://theagenda.tvo.org/episode/201568/shifting-the-gender-balance

    The women on the show – all brilliant, articulate, and accomplished – did a great job of holding Paikin’s feet to the fire, taking him to task on the issues they face (from grey roots, to child care), and explained what was wrong with the way in which he articulated the problem in his original blog post.

    But to the best of my knowledge, Paikin has not apologized for his comment. He has, however, acknowledged that he phrased himself quite poorly.

    And your suggestions about child care are very much in keeping with what many have argued is necessary (though as panelist Piali Roy explained, she had an elder care issue to contend with).

    To me, I think it’s also important that we support each other as women: when a woman expert is berated for her appearance, or for any reason that is based on gender, sexuality, and ethnicity, and especially if she is threatened with violence by internet trolls, we have a responsibility to stand up for each other.

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