Why are there so few female specialists in the media, and how can this be changed?

Authors: Beryl De Souza, Tami Hoffmann 

Publication date:  29 May 2013


Female medical specialists are rarely seen commenting on health issues in the media. Beryl De Souza and Tami Hoffmann look at the roots of the problem and consider how it can be addressed

Being a doctor and a specialist makes you an expert in your field and therefore qualified to comment on a range of health issues. This is easily done among patients, friends, and colleagues. Doctors are trained to communicate with patients in medical school, and after graduating they continue to communicate with patients, students, and allied health professionals. They also present research work at meetings and conferences and so are used to delivering information throughout their careers. Why then do women specialists so rarely comment on health issues in the media?

Sex bias

It is a longstanding complaint among production staff that it is harder to find female specialists. If women do not participate as experts in media discussions on health issues, the public will almost exclusively hear the views of male specialist doctors. This brings a sex bias in medical opinion that is unnecessary when there is sex parity across the profession.

Traditionally, the roster of general practitioners being interviewed on television has a more even gender balance than that of specialists, reflecting the numbers on the ground. For those in the media, there is a difficulty in finding women specialists who are willing to comment on health stories, and there are fewer female specialists anyway. In this regard, there is a virtuous circle of self promotion. Doctors who regularly comment in the media have a greater presence and can therefore be tracked down more quickly by a time pressed researcher.

Doctors are usually asked to comment in the media either to explain a general issue or to expand on their own research. If it is the former, the interview will be fairly straightforward, because the doctor is there to bring understanding to the audience, in much the same way as he or she would to patients or their families. If the subject is doctors’ own research it could be more challenging, but then they are the expert in that area.

Women may also need more persuading to take the time to go into a studio and put themselves through an interview. Women specialists often say they are too busy to comment on an issue, that it is not quite their subject, or that they have a colleague who would do a better job.

New websites

The situation is slowly changing, however, as more websites for female experts spring up, such as HerSay ( [Link] ) and The Women’s Room ( [Link] ), and as television producers become more proactive. Sky News, for example, has pushed the issue up the editorial agenda and shifted the percentage of female experts it has used over the past year from 26% to 34%.

Sky started analysing data on the number of female experts interviewed after signing up to a Broadcast magazine pledge to address the gender imbalance among experts in the media. On the grounds that “what gets measured gets done,” Tami Hoffman, Sky News interviews editor started totting up the weekly figures broken down by areas. She found that there was no quick fix to improve the situation. By making balance a priority, and communicating that need to other staff, Sky News has started to change the situation. Reaching out to groups like the Medical Women’s Federation ( [Link] ) is part of the process, but it is a two way street, and women specialists can do more to ensure their voice is heard in the media.

Many medical institutions and hospitals have media personnel who will help a doctor run through possible questions before an interview. If you’re not certain about key facts or figures, look them up. If possible, find out in advance what the reporter wants to know, who else is being interviewed, and what the reporter’s attitude toward the subject may be.

Hospitals recognise that effective working with the media is important and influences public perceptions of an organisation and its staff. Good liaison and the cooperation of hospital staff can avoid conflict and negative publicity while safeguarding patients’ interests.

The press office

The hospital press office will therefore respond quickly to press requests and will identify appropriately qualified and trained spokespeople. They also have the right to decline media requests where these conflict with operational requirements or the confidentiality of patients or staff. Staff should inform the press office of any incident or forthcoming event that may lead to positive or adverse media coverage, and consent should be obtained from patients and staff before releasing any information.

Doctors are also wary of being interviewed in case they are misquoted or the subtleties of their research will be misrepresented. One useful tactic in an interview (box) is to determine what medical understanding the journalist has and what his or her reporting interests are. Spending time with the journalist and making sure that he or she understands the situation and that all questions are answered ensures that there’s not a confused message.

Top tips for TV media interviews

Know your message by noting down two or three main points you want to communicate, and try and put them across during the interview. A successful interview is dependent on practice and preparation of a list of anticipated questions and answers. Review your responses and demeanour as you rehearse, and revise your answers as necessary

Where possible, use simple language and avoid jargon

Try to mention positive anecdotes and examples of your work or services to illustrate your points

Generally, being positive, polite, and amicable works best and will show you in a good light

Always be professional

Competing interests: Both authors address sex equality, and they refer to the Athena SWAN Charter and the Broadcast magazine pledge.

Beryl De Souza honorary secretary, Medical Women’s Federation
Tami Hoffmann Sky News interviews editor and producer London, UK

 bds@dr.com

Cite this as BMJ Careers ; doi: