Representing women experts on TV and radio: why the controversy?

question time accused of sexism

Question Time consistently under represents women (Photo credit: Mjtmail Tiggy)

Broadcast Now, the bigwig magazine in the TV industry, has started a campaign to encourage broadcasters to invite and feature more women experts on TV and radio. This comes after City University’s research found that programming, particularly news interviews, current affairs programmes and documentaries, regularly under-represents women.

The BBC is one of the big players that has refused to commit to the campaign’s requests. Well, no huge surprise there as we all know that the BBC thinks a panda is relevant candidate for their women of the year awards! So what’s more horrifying to me is that the Creative Diversity Network, the industry body that works to improve diversity, also refused, saying it would endorse only the ‘spirit of it’. Who knows why.

So what are the statistics? Men typically outnumber women by 4:1 on a huge range of news and current affairs programmes across channels. BBC Radio 4’s Today programme is more like 6:1. The Guardian’s research also showed that over a one-month period last year, 84% of the Today programme’s reporters, presenters and guests were male. This reflects a trend where not only are women not deemed interesting enough to be interviewed, they’re not getting the jobs in broadcasting either. City University’s Lis Howell said:

Even the programmes which have most women interviewees, Daybreak, Five Live and BBC Breakfast still only have a ratio of four to one and that many of their female participants are victims or case studies, not authority figures.

In my mind, this is an issue that doesn’t need to be controversial. I think a lot of the problem with opposition to campaigns such as this is the opposition to quotas. The fact is, this campaign is not a quota. It is careful to point this out. It only asks for an attempt to improve representation to more like 30% women – it’s a target. When we make up half of society, 30% doesn’t seem like that much to ask!  Women are absent from our screens in their roles as experts and decision makers. We’re robbed of a platform to show our more serious capacities. Sure, we’re there in spades on the reality tv, the soaps and the sitcoms – whether represented as stereotypes or as fully-developed characters – but actually, not to be taken seriously. When something is absent, sometimes that’s easy to miss. So this is a campaign of awareness raising. Notice this problem, first and foremost, then we can debate how to deal with it. (I for one, do agree with quotas, but that’s a whole different matter.)

You can see where the problems come from in clips such as this, from the BBC’s Question Time:

Katie Hopkins seems to think there’s a lack of women with merit out there, and that they want ‘special treatment’ rather than equality. She is speaking in response to Andy Gray and Richard Keys’ sacking by Sky News after (proven) sexist comments, but her comments apply more broadly. She admits’ it’s a tough world out there’, but sticks to a lovely stereotype of women as a submissive and needing to ‘toughen up’ to get by in it. At one point she even says ‘this sort of debate’ (i.e the equality debate) shouldn’t be out there. The debate isn’t even valid, in her eyes.

So basically, as usual, it’s women’s fault they’re not getting invited as guests on shows. It’s women’s fault that they’re not taken seriously in public life or politics. And if they’re not paid enough across the board in all industries, well, they’re just not pulling their weight and putting in a performance equal to men’s. Having worked for a time in the male-dominated atmosphere of the military, this does rather smack of ‘the organisation changes the woman before the woman can change the organisation’, which is something Germaine Greer once said. (NB I am by no means a Germaine Greer fan in all of her opinions.) How can we possibly still be going around spouting this nonsense? Women are under-represented in a vast amount of industries. So we’re not going to question those industries? We’re going to assume women aren’t good enough, or tough enough? I just don’t buy that they can’t find enough women experts to appear because they’re too busy having babies or whatever it is we’re allegedly doing instead.

Katie Hopkins isn’t alone in her views. I hear similar arguments all the time. My boyfriend believes that when it comes to Question Time, which describes itself as a ‘political discussion show’ featuring ‘political and media figures’, if we were to have 30% women as guests, or god forbid, 50%, we would OVER-represent women. Because women are only 22% of our Parliament. Well, I for one don’t agree that if something’s wrong in one institution, we should perpetuate that by reflecting it in another (influential) institution. Plus, it doesn’t just have to be politicians appearing on the show. Katie Price has appeared on it, for Christ’s sake! The host’s show David Dimbleby has addressed the issue of the BBC’s alleged sexism, saying they only reflect public life, they don’t create it. There are, indeed, a lack of women in British public life. But in my opinion, the BBC can do more than reflect life, it can also shape it. It already does shape people’s perceptions of women by reflecting them in the majority of cases as the victims of a crime, or in the case of Sian Massey and Andy Gray/Richard Keys, the victim of a controversy. So it can bloody well step up and shape society in a positive way by pledging to represent women in a variety of roles, not just as the victim. It is blatantly obvious that the portrayal of women as victims does more damage than just reflecting an under-representation. It’s affecting what we all think about all women, especially those who want to be taken seriously. Add to that the representation of women in other media such as newspapers, and we’ve got a problem of massive proportions on our hands. We have to focus on one specific area if we’re to have any success in campaigning, as a clear message and target audience is vital. So well done to this campaign for doing exactly that. But it would be a mistake to think that’s all this is about. This is one tiny slice of the cake.

We deserve to hear a variety of voices on screen and on radio from both genders, not because women deserve special treatment, but because women are experts in their relative fields too, and they’re not even being invited in the first place to prove that. Perhaps if we start representing women in the media in their roles other than victim, we might be able to start shifting the ‘old boys’ club’ mentality in our Parliament too.

Sign here to support the campaign to have more women experts on TV and radio. It’s a small step to something much, much bigger and more important – gender equality.


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