University press officers can help raise the profile of female academics

Bryony0156 for webThis article was contributed by Bryony Merritt, Media and Communications Officer at Birkbeck. A version of this post was originally published on the Guardian’s Higher Education Network.

As a press officer, I believe communications teams have a role to play in supporting women to feel confident about interviews, and increasing their visibility both within the institution and more widely.

Birkbeck is full of academics who are equipped with the knowledge and expertise to take media interviews on a vast array of subjects. But university press offices are busy places and it is often easiest to turn to academics who have regularly put themselves forward for media interviews in the past, or to respond to requests for communications support from the academics who contact you proactively.

Video camera viewfinderThis probably explains why three-quarters of experts used by the media are men, and only 26% of opinion articles in the UK press from July 2011 to June 2012 were by women. I suspect it is also the trap that BBC Radio 4 producers fell into at the end of 2012 when they interviewed all-male panels for stories about breast-cancer screening and teenage contraception. Throughout 2012, women made up just 18.5% of guestson the Today programme.

Not just women’s issues

I don’t think anyone believes that there weren’t any women available or willing to be interviewed on these topics, or others. It is not just on “women’s issues” that we need to hear from female experts either – there are women at Birkbeck who are eminently qualified to discuss commodities trading, biosecurity or flood insurance. Yet, last month the Daily Mail felt it was acceptable to imply that women are being selected for media interviews just because of their gender or race, driving home the fact that there is still a long way to go.

I haven’t seen any press officer training that addresses the gender imbalance in the media, and to my knowledge it hasn’t been widely discussed in higher education communications forums, but as communications professionals we are all voracious media consumers and the increased attention to lack of female media presence can’t have passed us by.

Practical support is needed

So how can I, together with my colleagues in the press office, help to address the media imbalance, and perhaps on a small scale play into the bigger issues of female promotions within academia? Of course media appearances are not listed among the criteria for promotion, but they are a way of joining the debate and demonstrating expertise. At Birkbeck and I’m sure at many other universities, media appearances are regularly circulated to the senior management team in a media round-up.

I have certainly encouraged women in my institution to sign up to initiatives such as The Women’s Room and respond to opportunities such as the call for women experts to participate in the BBC Academy training days. When organising media training at the College, for which places are limited, I invite at least as many female academics as men, and in fact we’ve had more women than men take us up on formal media training over the last three years. We also use opportunities to raise the profile of women within the College and to ‘practise’ media interviews in the re-recordable scenario of university podcasts, such as the recent one for International Women’s Day.

University press officers are always available to offer interviews tips, advice and mock interviews. Interestingly, I don’t recall a male academic ever asking me for this sort of advice before an interview, whereas female colleagues often have done. It’s also been the women who contact me afterwards to analyse how they came across, or whether they made their point clearly enough. 

I’m sure there are men who would be grateful for training, but the statistics suggest they are overcoming anxiety or any other barriers with greater ease than their female counterparts. Birkbeck has many female academics who are already more than happy to take an interview on theToday programme at short notice, but if there is practical support that others might appreciate then we need to offer it.

Of course any press officer worth their salt will always put forward the expert best at displaying their expertise and communicating with the audience, regardless of gender. But how can we make sure that, when the press call comes in, there are women in our institution who are ready and prepared to take the interview?

I’d be interested to know if other press offices have developed training or programmes targeted particularly at women within their institution. If you are a female academic, are there issues that stop you putting yourself forward for media interviews – and how could your press office support you? If we were putting together a checklist for university press officers, what should it include? My starter for 10 is below, but I’d be really pleased to hear others’ thoughts.

How can press officers help?

• Be aware of the gender split of the academics that you put forward for media interviews, expert comment and training sessions.
• Look out for programmes offering training or exposure to women, such as The Women’s Room, and encourage female colleagues to go on them.
• Proactively identify and contact academics who have good stories to tell but might just need some encouragement.
• Give praise. When an academic gives a good interview, tell her!


2 thoughts on “University press officers can help raise the profile of female academics

  1. The last line in this piece speaks volumes about the mind-set involved in this article. Instead of saying ‘praise them’, as though no male academics wished for or wanted praise or acknowledgement, it says ‘praise her’ !

    • Thanks for your comment. In the context of the whole article I think it makes sense to use the female pronoun.

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