How to tackle Steve Paikin’s gender troubles

Guest blog by Nancy Coldham, YWCA Toronto 2014 Woman of Distinction

A recent blog post by Steve Paikin, host of TVO debate program The Agenda, woke me up to the unbelievable reality that someone who hosts a publicly-funded program could struggle to find women experts to appear on his show.

My career in public affairs has introduced me to hundreds of articulate female experts, so it’s hard to believe he really can’t find women to appear as guests. Women experts are everywhere! To add insult to injury, Paikin got out a shovel and started digging by commenting:

“We’ve also discovered there also seems to be something in women’s DNA that makes them harder to book,” Paikin writes. “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.”

Paikin added that women tell producers they can’t do the show because they are self-conscious about their appearances, citing one woman’s reason for declining as “my roots are showing.” He claims the men approached by The Agenda never say no and, unlike women, resolve to “get up to speed” on issues with which they lack familiarity in order to be on the show. Really? I find it all hard to accept given the women I know in leadership positions, women I’ve worked with, the over 800 amazing fellow members at the Verity women’s club plus women lawyers, economists, human rights experts, psychologists, medical experts and political pundits we all watch on other TV stations.

Never mind that most women in the public eye face torrents of criticism for their appearance after every public engagement. Never mind that childcare is still too often considered a woman’s responsibility. Never mind that women, even highly qualified experts, may be socialized to both think before speaking and doubt their own expertise far more often than men. If you ask me, we need to pose a few questions to Steve Paikin and TVO.

Once the outrage subsides, one must ask: why now? Why, in 2014, does an intelligent and respected journalist like Steve Paikin struggle to grasp the systemic reasons why prospective female guests might doubt their expertise, feel greater pressure to care for their children, or worry more about their appearances? And why doesn’t he know where to find women experts?

When the federal government published the Royal Commission’s Report on the Status of Women in 1970, I was just a teenager thinking about heading off to university. The report was a big deal. Today, I am a YWCA Toronto 2014 Woman of Distinction, and it’s still a big deal. Thanks to that Commission, a Minister of State for the Status of Women was appointed. The position still exists. Women have supposedly broken through many “glass ceilings” to become politicians, entrepreneurs, Olympic athletes, construction workers, and many other positions we used to think only men could hold. But we still face resistance, ignorance and backlash at all levels of professional success.

So when an influential person like Steve Paikin uses his voice to blame the women of Ontario for shying away from the public eye, we have to ask why? Paikin’s well-intentioned but tone-deaf blog post made it painfully clear that discrimination doesn’t just take the shape of overt hostility – it can also manifest in erasure, dismissal and resistance to change. What message is TVO, a public broadcaster that prioritizes education, sending to female viewers of all ages?

Paikin and his team clearly need help. My call to action: The Agenda needs a full-time woman co-host – and fast! Not a visiting host. Not a woman to step in when Steve needs to go on vacation or write a book or recharge his batteries, but an equal partner to co-host.

Ontario has no shortage of qualified women journalists and broadcasters. How can our provincial “Agenda” be defined solely by a man? A woman co-host is likely to know other competent women, or at least know where to start looking. She might also have a more nuanced understanding of women’s reasons for declining to appear, and be in a better position than Paikin to advise producers on how to assuage the concerns of prospective female guests. Let’s help TVO get a balanced gender perspective on their flagship program – let’s demand a full-time woman co-host for The Agenda.

Write to Premier Kathleen Wynne. Write to Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak and NDP leader Andrea Horwath. TVO reports to the Ontario Minister of Education, so write to Liz Sandals, the Minister of Education. Write to Ms. Sandals’ Parliamentary Assistant Bas Balkissoon, and write to the Education critics for the Progressive Conservatives (Rob Leone) and NDP (Peter Tabuns). Don’t shrug this off. Demand a woman co-host.

Use the hashtag #PaikinCohost to tweet suggestions of women who would make great full-time co-hosts on The Agenda, like Piya Chattopadhyay who currently fills in for Steve part-time.

In 2013, TD Bank deputy chief economist Beata Caranci declared in a TD Bank Report that gender parity on corporate boards of directors was so important that boards must “comply or explain.” In other words, corporate boards should either comply with the principle of gender parity or explain why they cannot.

I think TVO should comply and explain. They should comply with our demand for a woman co-host for The Agenda, and if they refuse to do so, they should be prepared to explain why not.

Let’s shatter some glass ceilings at TVO.

Nancy Coldham, 2014 YWCA Toronto Woman of Distinction Award recipient, is a founding partner of public affairs consulting firm The CG Group. Nancy has spent the past three decades breaking down the barriers to greater representation of women at political decision-making tables, in boardrooms and as successful entrepreneurs.

Learn more about Nancy by reading her bio, and buy your ticket to celebrate her achievements on May 22nd at the 34th annual YWCA Toronto Women of Distinction Awards at the Carlu. For more information, visit womenofdistinction.ca.

7 Comments

  1. Barbara McMullen
    4 years ago

    Based on your quote of Steve Paikin’s words, it seems that The Agenda calls experts on the day of the shoot and expects them to show up that night. Even though the women experts have given feedback, the people in the show have not responded by changing their procedure. Of course women want to look good and of course they need time to find someone to take care of their kids. Instead of acting like prima donnas and expecting the possible guests to accommodate them, The Agenda should call women a few days ahead to give them time to do what they need to. If the show really wants female experts, that is what they will do.

  2. Beth Haddon
    4 years ago

    As a former, now retired, programme director at TVO let me say this. There is no need for a co host. There are lots of women reporters/anchors/hosts in broadcast media. The issue is ‘female experts’; gender balance (not to mention other balances) on panels, debates and interviews. That’s where all broadcasters have to get modern so that a generation from now outstanding women like Nancy won’t be writing the same brilliant cri de coeur. One more thing: Steve Paiken is taking a beating here and I don’t think it’s deserved. Itt’s not unreasonable to interpret his comments as another form of the same ‘cri de coeur.

  3. catherine
    4 years ago

    I wonder if he’s read Cheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) and her “Lean In” advice?

    Her 3 points of advice delivered at TED:

    Perhaps she’s available for advice on attracting female talent. Could make a good episode for The Agenda.

  4. Guy
    4 years ago

    The question isn’t Why now? The question is Why did Steve Paikin publish such an ill informed tone deaf piece? You identify quite clearly that the reality is that there are countless female experts available. If TVO would take a closer look at the real context around what challenges they encounter they would possibly arrive at their own solution.

  5. Eya Kotulsky
    4 years ago

    TVO does not need to hire a female (or any other) cohost to help Steve Paikin attract women to appear on The Agenda. That is ludicrous, and it is analogous to recommending that a young man needs a “wingman” to help him attract young women.
    Television as an industry is dying, whether it’s government-funded or not. TVO has interesting, relevant programming, no doubt, but putting an additional host on air is like having two doctors operate on you at the same time.
    If TVO wants to attract more women as panelists on The Agenda, it can broaden its “agenda” to include topics about which more women are passionate (and no, I don’t mean “children’s literature”, valuable though that is) and loosen up the format so it’s not so gladiatorial.
    If a PC government wins in the next provincial election, agencies like TVO will be first on the chopping block. What would be the reason for more female panelists? To attract more female viewers and thereby justify its existence? What we need are more voters, female and male, to get out and cast a ballot on election day. Cuts to public broadcasters are killing it. Look what’s happening to the CBC under the PCs. If they get in provincially, not even Steve Paikin is going to have his job as host of The Agenda.

  6. Christine Cooper
    4 years ago

    Absolutely fantastic read. So right on the money! Nancy, thank you for this very insightful and provocative article. Hopefully someone over at TVO will snap out of their coma and find a female co-host for The Agenda.

    Christine Cooper

    • admin
      4 years ago

      So glad you enjoyed it, Christine!