TL;DR – advice to ignore, but implications to heed

Hanging out with teenagers can be an enlightening experience.

Panelists and participants at MediaSmart's recent Marketing and Consumerism event

Panelists and participants at MediaSmart’s recent Marketing and Consumerism event

Last week, I participated in a panel discussion convened by MediaSmarts, “Canada’s centre for digital and media literacy” and a repository of fabulous resources for teachers, parents and kids. The teenagers present from across Canada asked really smart questions, many of which betrayed both deep scepticism of marketers and consumption-driven culture, and highly-developed social consciousness.

In exhorting them to pursue these passions, one of my panelist colleagues, Susan Krashinsky, the media reporter for the Globe and Mail, recommended that they sometimes ignore the “TL;DR” instructions that accompany social media posts referring to in-depth features or reports.

Although I’ve been on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn for a couple of years, I apparently follow the wrong people, because until Susan mentioned it, I’d never come across the abbreviation, which is essentially a warning to the short-of-time (or intellectually lazy). It signifies “too long; don’t read.”

(Luckily for Dickens, Tolstoy and Proust, this now frequently-dispensed advice is a recent phenomenon.)

Susan’s point about the need to invest time and attention in informing oneself (beyond what’s available on Twitter posts and entertainment sites) is an important one.

But the attitude — and information overload reality behind it — that’s expressed in the “too long; don’t read” acronym is also important for anyone seeking to raise the profile of critical issues to consider. Many people no longer have the time or patience to wade through long-winded or densely-written material in search of the gems that might eventually, with effort, be on offer. If we want to influence people with our crafted arguments, it helps to be able to get to the point quickly, and deliver a clear thesis, compelling support, effective counter statement and convincing conclusion as concisely as possible.

Newspaper op ed pages and online blogs give you a platform to persuade, but they don’t guarantee that readers will stick with you just because what you’re writing about is important.

This is a lesson that both scholars and social justice advocates need to learn.

A few days before the panel discussion, I had the opportunity to support members of the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW) in exploring how they can make better use of social media platforms to share their great work.

For almost four decades, CRIAW has been publishing rigorous research on critically important issues. I so appreciate their indispensable work, and have cited their studies and relied on their resources many, many times.  Given the complexity of the topics they’re exploring, and the in-depth nature of their analyses, it’s not surprising that many of the documents they produce are lengthy. But in today’s communications environment, I worry that when even the “short version” of a “fact sheet” on violence against women is 14 pages long, it’s more likely to fall into the “TL;DR” abyss.

In addition to encouraging teenagers to ignore the “too long; don’t read” advice, those of use producing knowledge and disseminating resources can help bridge the gap by making an effort to write a bit shorter.

 

 

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Girls fuel outrage and inspiration

I don’t often shout back at the TV, despite the vast volume of material it broadcasts that I find vile or banal. But last week I couldn’t help myself.

source: www.Mirror.co.uk

source: www.Mirror.co.uk

The object of my fury wasn’t Fox News or Sun TV, it wasn’t some retrograde beauty pageant, exploitive reality show, or a crime drama featuring a multitude of victimized women (respecting the fleeting nature of life, I avoid those.)

Instead, my outburst was precipitated by two words uttered by Peter Mansbridge.

CBC’s The National had just finished airing Anna Maria Tremonti’s interview with the inspirational Malala Yousafzai about her campaign for girls’ education — initially in Pakistan, but now around the world.

When Mansbridge re-appeared on the screen, he innocuously referred to this campaign as “her cause”, and I found myself shouting at the TV through tears:

“It’s not just HER cause, it’s the WORLD’S cause!”

Of course, what I meant was, it SHOULD be the world’s cause. And I want everyone to be as outraged as I am about the colossal cost and profound unfairness of failing to educate, support the equality of, and benefit from the gifts and contributions of millions of girls.

Then today, I came across this 2-minute video from the UN

Screen Shot 2013-10-14 at 10.29.49 AM

…featuring dozens of girls from around the world looking into the camera and declaring:

I was not put on this earth to be invisible.

I was not born to be denied.

I was not given life only to belong to someone else. I belong to me.

I have a voice & I will use it. I have dreams unforgettable.

I have a name and it is not anonymous or insignificant or unworthy or waiting any more to be called.

Some day, they will say: this was the moment when the world woke up to my potential.

This is the moment I was allowed to be astonishing.

This is the moment when my rising no longer scares you.

This is the moment when being a girl became my strength, my sanctuary, not my pain.

This is the moment when the world sees that I am held back by every problem and I am key to all solutions.

We so need to help make them right. And one of the ways we can do that in North America, where so many of us are extraordinarily privileged in a multitude of ways — not the least of which is to have access to decades of exceptionally good education — is to speak up ourselves.

We should be ashamed not to. Like living in a democracy and having the capacity to vote, our educational attainment — the knowledge and credibility it gives us — cannot be taken for granted.

Not as long as we share the planet with 250 million girls for whom those rights are denied.

What might you speak up about? Where? And when? Who might you help educate or enlighten by exercising your voice? By making the best possible use of your privilege?

And what would those girls, denied such basic rights, say about women who have such access to education and the means to communicate their knowledge more broadly, but fail to take advantage of it?

Your engagement is critical to the difference that Informed Opinions is making.

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Canada’s anthem back in the hot seat

Jian Ghomeshi calls it common sense. But will the government listen?

Restore Our Anthem

Last week, some of Canada’s most notable women (including Informed Opinions Honorary Patrons, Senator Nancy Ruth and the Rt. Hon. Kim Campbell) launched a formidable campaign advocating that gender-neutral lyrics be restored to Canada’s national anthem. Since then, all sorts of media heavyweights — including the host of CBC’s Q — have championed the cause. And no wonder.

Restore Our Anthem uses a powerful two-minute video to remind Canadians that the original lyrics to O Canada didn’t exclude women, and there’s no reason the ones we sing in 2013 should either. The site includes a comprehensive list of FAQs and timeline of the anthem’s history, and brilliantly showcases the absurdity of hanging on to the outdated words. It even features a user-friendly politician-locator that makes it easy for supporters to write to their elected representatives.

The call for restoring our anthem likely sounds familiar. In July, Informed Opinions launched its own campaign demanding the same change be made to O Canada’s lyrics. Our short, emotionally charged video and accompanying written pieces received overwhelmingly positive support from women and men across the country. But we’re still waiting.

As the momentum behind Restore Our Anthem continues to build, we hope the small change necessary to re-establish a gender inclusive national anthem will follow. Let’s commemorate the 100th anniversary of the initial revisions to O Canada with another change — one that reflects our country’s reality.

To learn more about the campaign, or to add your voice to the growing chorus of Canadians demanding equality, click here.

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New partner puts chocolate in the mouths of expert women

Warning: this post contains an unabashed product endorsement.

It’s the one thing I try not to leave home without: Cocoa Camino Mint chocolate.

Screen shot from LaSiembra's home page

Screen shot from LaSiembra’s home pagBut there I was in downtown Toronto during a February snowstorm in serious need of a mid-afternoon energy re-boot. Coffee’s not an option for me, and since I discovered Camino’s particularly addictive combination of dark chocolate and mint crunch, I’m no longer even interested in trying alternative confections. (I have, when desperate, but they just don’t compare.)

But there I was, stranded in the middle of a snowstorm in Toronto without my stash. So I googled Camino and, landing on their website, was gratified to note that they’re based in Ottawa, just a ten minute stroll from my home. Unfortunately, their locator search function wasn’t working, so I emailed them instead, confessing to my unabashed fandom, asking where I could buy my fix, and suggesting we should talk.

Because, I explained, Informed Opinions serves a growing audience of highly intelligent, socially progressive, chocolate-craving women who are becoming more influential all the time. The likelihood of them sharing my affinity for fair trade, organic, flavanoid-boosting, caffeine-injecting morsels of mouth-watering goodness, the production of which supports 39,500 family farmers, seemed pretty high.

Six months, several delightful conversations (and about 3 dozen high quality chocolate bars) later (I limit myself to four small squares a day, but it adds up), I’m thrilled to announce that participants in all of Informed Opinions programming in the coming months will be treated to their own mid-workshop energy boost, courtesy of Camino. This in-kind contribution to the project is a recognition of our shared aims of building vibrant, sustainable communities.

Word cloud generated from more than 100 op eds written by Informed Ops "grads" and posted on our website.

Word cloud generated from more than 100 op eds written by Informed Ops “grads” and posted on our website.

Although the more than 800 women who’ve now participated in our workshops are extremely diverse, professionally and personally, it’s clear from the issues that they address in the media commentary they do coming out of our training that their values reflect many of those articulated by Camino.  It’s no coincidence that after “women” and “Canada”, the most prominent words are that appear in the op eds written by our grads include “community” and “public”.

Now all I have to do is find a safe place to store the chocolate bars that Camino is supplying to Informed Opinions for its workshop participants in Fredericton, Calgary, Toronto, Winnipeg — and maybe a city near you? (so that they don’t disappear under mysterious, if predictable circumstances!)

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Women on boards to counter “affirmative action plan for men”?

Constance Sugiyama, a respected mergers and acquisition lawyer and honorary patron of Informed Opinions, serves on a number of boards, and is one of thousands of Canadian women qualified to do so.

Constance Sugiyama, a respected mergers and acquisition lawyer and honorary patron of Informed Opinions, serves on a number of boards, and is one of thousands of Canadian women qualified to do so and capable of making a significant contribution.

The following op ed was published in the Ottawa Citizen 23 September 2013.

Here’s an interesting contradiction: the business mantra “What gets measured gets done” is universally understood as an effective way to monitor many aspects of performance.

And yet when it’s suggested the maxim be applied to measuring the representation of women on corporate boards, suddenly the value of quantification becomes tainted by the apparently dreaded concepts of gender quotas.

This may explain why the Ontario Securities Commission is taking such a restrained approach to attempting to address Canada’s embarrassingly poor performance in pursuit of greater diversity on private sector boards.

In June, the OSC released a consultation paper inviting submissions on its exceptionally reasonable proposal to require public companies to start reporting the number of women on their boards and the efforts they’re making to increase their representation.

Why is this important?

Because a raft of business research published by prestigious business schools and management consulting agencies has made it clear: when competent women are included at the executive level, and on boards of big companies, it leads to better decisions. (And given Canada’s lamentable standing on the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness and innovation rankings — 14th and 25th respectively — we could clearly use the talent boost.)

Some companies acted on this intelligence years ago, and as a result, have realized competitiveness and profitability gains. Meanwhile banks — forced to embrace greater diversity by federal regulators — have now become vocal advocates.

Ed Clark, president and CEO of TD Bank Group, commented publicly on the perils of failing to draw on a larger pool of candidates last year. He rhetorically questioned how he could attract the best people possible and build a better bank if he excluded all women, visible minorities, gay, lesbian and transgendered people, restricting himself to less than 30 per cent of the population.

And yet 43 per cent of the largest publicly traded Canadian companies listed on the TSC still have zero female directors on their boards. Another 28 per cent have exactly one woman, meaning less than one-third have made any serious attempt to benefit from expanding their search to include the other half of the population. Currently, only 14.5 per cent of public company directors in Canada are women.

Investors, are you paying attention?

In fact, shareholder activist Carl Icahn — not your typical feminist advocate — made this point in a roundabout way a few years ago on his blog. He argued that the old boys’ network approach to recruiting board members from the least threatening guys in one’s network was leading to the “survival of the un-fittest.”

The truth is, board appointments have been effectively implementing a de facto affirmative action program for straight, white men of a certain age and class for decades. More than 90 per cent of men serving on FTSE 100 company boards were waved into their positions without even undergoing an interview. So, far from reflecting the kind of meritocracy that might be threatened by quotas, the current system is more likely to entrench mediocrity and group think.

The OSC might address this by extending the tracking beyond the boards to include the nominating committees that work to populate them.

This would not only increase the committees’ ability to identify a wider variety of qualified candidates, but also make it more likely that some of those selected would reflect the more diverse skills, experiences and perspectives desired.

Another critical step would be to insist that corporate boards adopt term limits for service.

Already accepted as best practice in the non-profit sector, limits would ensure renewal and permit companies to better adapt to the rapidly changing global economy. (A recent survey conducted by leadership recruitment firm Korn Ferry determined that more corporate directors in Canada have passed their 71st birthdays than are female.)

Many governments around the world have taken a much more interventionist approach to increasing board diversity.

Some have even adopted gender quotas. In Italy and France, companies and directors failing to meet government targets for female membership (30 per cent and 40 per cent respectively) face fines and risk having their board elections nullified.

Belgium has dictated that all new appointments must be women until companies reach the 30 per cent target, while Norwegian companies achieved the imposed 40 per cent quota in 2009, only seven years after it was introduced.

So Canadian corporate laggards should be on their knees in gratitude that the OSC is being so cautious.

Its approach seeks merely to boost transparency and encourage companies to work harder to get the best talent onto their boards by expanding their recruitment pool to include women.

On the other hand, the Commission is also welcoming public input. Many individuals and organizations are preparing convincing arguments as to why the incremental gains achieved by the previous go-slow approach are folly in the context of a 21st-century globally competitive business environment.

Let’s hope their voices provoke a more robust response.

Shari Graydon is the founder of Informed Opinions, which trains expert women to share their ideas and analyses through the media.

 

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Changing lives through media commentary

“You really have to write that!”

This enthusiastic exhortation — often exclaimed simultaneously by a chorus of voices — is a common refrain in the commentary writing workshops we lead. Although I’m clear about the benefits provided by the tips and strategies we teach, I’m also keenly aware of how much additional value participants derive from sharing their ideas with a room full of other women — women who invariably reinforce how important what they have to say is, and how eagerly it will be consumed by others.

Justice Studies professor Michelle Stewart advocating for Nigerian students on CBC's Power & Politics.

So I wasn’t the only one thrilled to see Justice Studies professor Michelle Stewart being interviewed on CBC’s Power & Politics program last week. Earlier this spring in a workshop at the University of Regina everyone in the room was moved by the plight of the two students whose desperate situation she described.

Last week she published an op ed in the Ottawa Citizen (also picked up by the Edmonton Journal) laying out the situation faced by Victoria Ordu and Favour Amadi, two Nigerian students facing deportation for the crime of having worked briefly off campus while attending the University of Regina. You can read more about the unnecessarily punitive government response and buck passing in Michelle’s piece, or watch her calmly and decisively advocate for the students on the CBC link above.

Will the resulting media and public attention garnered for the situation by Michelle and her colleagues (including URegina President, Vianne Timmons, who has written to the prime minister) shame the government into acting?

Stay tuned…

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2 words to make your writing more accessible

photo courtesy of alphacoders.com

Let’s say you have a graduate degree and/or 20 years of experience in your field, and you’re used to speaking or writing for people who are similarly well-informed. Chances are you sometimes find it difficult to translate your knowledge into sentences that engage a lay audience.

But whether you’re writing a newspaper commentary, or speaking into a broadcaster’s microphone, the ability to phrase concepts and issues in ways that the average person can understand is a great asset.

In our writing workshops, we often encourage expert participants to try running a sample of their text through the Gunning Fog Index. The index measures the readability of English writing, estimating the years of formal education somebody needs to understand a text on first reading.

It’s a very useful tool. But here’s another, simpler and more practical approach: When you sit down to put words to the page, start with

“Hi Mom” (or Dad, or Sis)*.

Unless your relative happens to have his or her own PhD in the field, the act of targeting your communication to a real life audience member will force you to find much less formal and more colloquial language.

This advice comes courtesy of the folks at Podium Coaching, and I’m justifying the gratuitous hippo pic because it was the most interesting image that popped up in my google search of “mom”.

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Expert status less important than insightful context

I have no legal training or experience in the sex trade. No one would ever mistake me as a candidate for the corner office of a large corporation. I am not a celebrity and have never been pregnant.

And yet in recent months, major daily newspapers have published my commentary about:

Two of the three op eds were not even my ideas, but written in response to emails from newspaper editors looking for someone to weigh in on the topics.

Was I the most authoritative person to offer commentary and analysis? Clearly not. But I’m a writer who knows how to find and assimilate authoritative information, and enliven it with attitude and accessible context. And I’m a woman whose life experience in related areas influenced my perceptions and ideas about the issues.

At dinner parties and book club meetings, many of the women I know regularly offer interesting and thoughtful insights on issues of the day, regardless of how relevant their day-job is to the topic at hand.

We should feel equally empowered to massage our insights into commentary that adds to the public discourse – even if we’re not “the best person”.

Last week, Kate Heartfield, a volunteer mentor-editor with both Informed Opinions and the US-based Op Ed Project, who also holds down a demanding day-job as Acting Editorial Page Editor with the Ottawa Citizen (while raising children and writing fiction in her spare time), tweeted her need for more submissions.  Then she emailed me to say that all the ones in her pipeline happened to be by men.

For the record, this is probably the case at most newspapers across the country, almost all the time. And it’s why Informed Opinions exists. Because in a world full of complex, intractable, social, economic and environmental problems, we need a rich diversity of analyses reflecting as broad an array of perspectives as possible.

The good news ending to this particular story is that in response to my own email encouraging Informed Opinions’ grads to submit to Kate, Equal Voice executive director, Nancy Peckford wrote and had published a great piece on female premiers, my own op ed about Kate Middleton’s “bravery” ran the day after, and my colleague Ashley piqued interest in her proposed commentary on the abuse of internships. Three other Ottawa-area grads also emailed to say that, thanks to the reminder and incentive, they would be pitching Kate soon.

I hope they do. Because my piece, published in the Ottawa Citizen, the Montreal Gazette and the Calgary Herald, was the only female voice on each of the pages where it appeared.

What if I hadn’t bothered? What if you don’t?

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“Get me rewrite!” – a truly inclusive O Canada

photo credit: Tim Van Horn, Canadian Mosaic

The positive responses to our video campaign in pursuit of a more inclusive O Canada are still outpacing the cranky ignorant ones, and among the most inspiring was an email I received from Toronto poet and physician, Ron Charach. He turned his attention to not only eliminating the sexism of our anthem’s lyrics, but also paying tribute to Canada’s first peoples and immigrants.

I think the merits of his rewrite are worth considering:

O Canada, our home on sacred land,
True patriot love, in all of us command,
With glowing hearts we see thee rise
The true north strong and free,
From far and wide thy children come
To stand on guard for thee!
Come, build a land,
Glorious and free,
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee,
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee!

In the meantime, a version of the op ed that the Montreal Gazette commissioned from me last week has now been published by papers in Vancouver and Saskatoon, and the video we posted a week ago is continuing to attract viewers.

Appreciating that the current government isn’t likely to revisit this issue, having rescinded its promise in the 2010 throne speech to do so within 24 hours of making it, we still think the debate is an important one. And it helps to build a broad vocal constituency for such a change in advance of political action, rather than cave to the close-minded minority afterwards.

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Official sexism brought to you by Canada’s national anthem

Clara Hughes, one of Canada’s most decorated Olympians ever (in two sports no less) deserves to be included in the lyrics of her national anthem.

The following op ed, commissioned by the Montreal Gazette, also appears in  today’s Saskatoon Star Phoenix.

It’s like poking a hornet’s nest: Dare to suggest that the words to the English version of our national anthem should be altered to include the 50 per cent of the population they currently leave out, and you’re guaranteed to provoke an angry reaction of stinging attacks.

The puzzling part is: Why?

Unlike the hornets, whose lives may be imperilled by the poke, replacing the reference to “sons” in O Canada with a gender-neutral term threatens no one.

This week, Informed Opinions, the small social enterprise that I lead, addressed the topic in a modest campaign. And by modest I mean our team of two part-timers created an 80-second video using photos of awesome Canadian women accompanied by the music to O Canada. We respectfully argued that our anthem should reflect this country’s worldwide reputation for equality and women’s able service in a multitude of leadership capacities.

We uploaded the video onto our site and social-media platforms, and emailed it to our contacts list. Then, despite the fact that it features still shots of professors, politicians and soldiers (instead of moving footage of crazy cats or naked celebrities), we watched the viewings climb.

Encouragingly, alongside the cries of outrage, we also received enthusiastic emails, retweets and likes from hundreds of men and women who share our consternation over the resistance to restoring our national anthem to its original gender-neutrality. (Yes, original, and I’ll get to that. Those who complain that a change would mess with our cultural heritage need to know: It’s already been messed with. Twice. And astonishingly, we survived!)

The naysayers responding to our initiative are dramatically fewer in number than the supporters, and they have yet to mount a coherent argument to bolster their case for the status quo. “You are taking the gender thing too far!” one exclaimed. “Is this really holding women back?” demanded another. “What’s next, MAN-hole covers?!” slammed a third. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve never considered the iron discs covering sewer access points a national symbol. On the other hand, if the things were invented today, they probably wouldn’t be called manhole covers. Because — and personally, I appreciate this — human beings, and the societies we inhabit, continue to evolve. Over the years that evolution has included an increasingly sophisticated, not to mention research-supported, understanding of the power language has to shape our perceptions and attitudes.

Consider what reliably occurs when your kid says, “There’s a rabbit on the front lawn.” You don’t picture a raccoon. If you quote Robert Browning — “Man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” — to a roomful of people, and ask them what image popped into their head, it’s not going to feature a woman. Trust me; I’ve tried this.

Human beings are literal creatures. We understand that words have precise meanings. That’s why those on opposing sides of the abortion debate define themselves as “pro-choice” and “anti-abortion,” not “pro-abortion” and “anti-choice.” And it’s why “alderman” and “stewardess” have helpfully been replaced with “councillor” and “flight attendant,” in recognition that, in the 21st century, the people in these jobs are commonly of both sexes.

Even most 5-year-olds are not confused by the exclusivity of “sons.” When the daughter of a friend came home a few years ago asking why O Canada referred to boys but not girls, my friend was not reassured by the school principal’s response to her query about replacing the unfortunate lyrics. “We sing the official version,” she was told, making it clear: sexism is official.

That needs to change.

The decision made in 1914 to replace “Thy dost in us command” with “In all thy sons command” to honour the men going to war on Canada’s behalf was well-intentioned, but it no longer makes sense. Canadian women have been serving in active combat roles for decades, and some of them return home in body bags as a result. They too deserve to be honoured by their national anthem.

I agree that the existing lyrics are problematic in other respects, ignoring both Canada’s significant aboriginal heritage and its immigrant-enriched citizenry. But these might also be easily fixed. We don’t suffer from a shortage of brilliant writers. Indeed, one of the emails I received this week was from Ron Charach, a Toronto-based poet whose proposed revisions artfully address all of the above.

That’s why Informed Opinions, a non-profit project working to bridge the gender gap in public discourse, is challenging equality-minded Canadians to express their support for an anthem that better reflects our values.

Shari Graydon is an author, social entrepreneur and the founder of Informed Opinions (informedopinions.org). 

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