What We Can Learn From the TV Host Who Actually Booked 50% Female Guests

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Gender disparities in the opinion and talking-head realm are known to be widespread; gaps can be found everywhere from Sunday talk shows and major op-ed pages to “thought leader” journals, Wikipedia editor counts, and New York Times comments sections.

And every time these abysmal numbers are pointed out via a headcount or any other means, the result provokes lots of discussion about cause: are women just not leaning in? Is it self-selection? Systemic bias? Accidental bias? Is it really about family leave, or perceived intelligence?

Organizations like the Women’s Media Center, VIDA, Change the Ratio, and the Op-Ed Project try to combat this. They raise awareness, or arm female pundits and send them into the fray.

But what about the people on the other side of it? The editors, bookers, and hosts who declare that they just don’t get pitched by women, so hey, what can they do? How much responsibility do they bear?

One host, of Steven I. Weiss of the show Up Close on the Jewish Channel decided to find out. He spent a year really trying to even out the gender ratio of guests on his talk show, in an environment where the Sunday talk shows set the tone, and “women comprised only 14 percent of those interviewed and 29 percent of roundtable guests.”

He wrote a piece in The Atlantic about his efforts, which really illuminated the step-by-step enterprise it requires to change the ratio. I know this from friends and relatives who are editors; it’s not enough to wait for pitches from women and people of color. Extremely active measures on both ends are the only way to effect numerical change. And that indeed was the case with Weiss and his show. “I’d estimate the Up Close team has put in more than twice as much time and effort into booking guests as we would have if we ignored gender ratios,” he writes.”But it’s been worth it for all the compelling interviews and books we would have otherwise missed out on.”

While at first it seemed like a matter of a few tweaks here and there, Weiss said, this didn’t work. Eventually, achieving gender parity moved upward on the priorities list until it was practically the main focus of the booking staff. This happened for many reasons. Publishers published and promoted more male authors more heavily, for one. In addition, it proved much easier to convince men to come into the studio for a variety of reasons: budgets, family obligations, and so forth.

In the end, the likelihood of getting a male author I’d listed to come into the studio was somewhere between 1 in 3 and 1 in 2; for women, the odds of someone listed as a potential guest to make it into the studio were closer to 1 in 7. And even those wildly disparate ratios don’t show the true difference at play here, because there were many men we cancelled or eventually passed on booking to reach our gender target. On the other hand, I can’t think of a single woman we’d listed who gave us a reasonable time and date to appear whom we turned down.

The staff had to make initial lists of potential guests that were 80 percent or more skewed towards women in order to achieve their coveted 50-50 result.

That ratio of seeking diverse talent vs. finding it sounds like a pretty good ballpark number for anyone trying to mix up their guest lists and eliminate “pale male” panels, pages, or rosters. And the rule that a big effort will pay off applies to everything from TV shows to children’s books.

The pundits and public intellectuals are out there, but finding them and bringing them to the set or the op-ed page may require real labor. Weiss’ effort, as well as shows like Larry Wilmore‘s and Melissa Harris-Perry’s, demonstrate that it absolutely can be done. The question is, is this the kind of labor people who hold power are willing to do?