Week Woman

A Pox on the Patriarchy

Women Experts & The BBC: A Small Sliver of Progress?

- Caroline Criado-Perez

The battle to get women represented in public discourse often feels like a losing one. There’s a lot of noise and bluster, and occasionally there willi've registered have you be a flurry of articles, or even a petition or two. But then everything dies down, and we all get back to business as usual, directed by the usual suspects. And the usual suspects tend to be men – specifically, five men to every one woman.

It was the cyclical nature of this Sturm und Drang that inspired us to set up The Women’s Room, an online database of female experts, intended as a practical response to the hand-wringing back-and-forth over the media’s gender ratios. A good woman is hard to find, you say? Here are 1493 and counting on an online platter, signed up and ready to speak to the media on topics ranging from astrophysics to sexuality. The overwhelming take-up on The Women’s Room sent out women’s message loud and clear: listen to us.

And it sounds like, finally, our call is being heeded. In March 2012, the BBC refused to sign Broadcast’s pledge calling for the media to aim at 30% of female experts, citing a need to “reflect…society at large”. This was odd, because the BBC regularly fails to reflect society at large: an all male BBC News at Ten is not unheard of; neither is a ratio of 12:1 male-to-female contributors on the Today programme. But, possibly shamed into action by the positive example set by Sky News, who not only meet the 30% ratio, but sometimes beat it, the BBC seems to be finally recognising its responsibility to serve more than 50% of the public that funds it. Year on year figures from 2011 – 2012 show a very slight improvement from 16.6% – 18.5%. So still not “society at large”, but we’ll take it, along with the BBC’s decision to co-host the Expert Women day with Broadcast.

The Expert Women day held at the BBC Academy was an unequivocal success: 2000 women applied for 30 places; those who got through represented a 30-woman riposte to charges of “tokenism” and “social engineering”. The standard was intimidatingly high, and according to Colin Savage, executive producer and media trainer to Number 10, ”every single one” of them was ready to go on air. And I look forward to seeing them do just that.

While training 30 women is a positive first step, it’s not a panacea to all problems. It’s clear when speaking to the Today programme that they want to get more women in, but they face difficulties, such as male bosses who are happy to step over female staff members who were originally booked. This is a societal problem that Today can do little about and which society at large must challenge. But the argument that their output is dictated to by the grand players in the news stories of the day won’t wash. Frankly, it is reminiscent of history books that insist our past was entirely made up of men – the richer and the whiter the better. The Today programme drives the news. They decide what’s “newsworthy”. And isn’t it just possible that, in a world where 51% of the population is female, if the news is 75-80% male, they might be getting this wrong?

 

3 comments on “Women Experts & The BBC: A Small Sliver of Progress?

  1. judisutherland
    March 19, 2013

    I don’t think we can largely blame the BBC or other news organisations for this. The problem is largely with the employers of the experts. If you work for a company, and it is probably the same with government departments, academic or other institutions, you are not allowed to speak on subjects related to your work unless you are given clearance by Corporate Communications. Thus all employees, men and women, are fettered. This is down to a fear that you will go “off message”. Only certain media-trained department heads are allowed to represent the company, and these are disproportionately senior and therefore disproportionately male. The self-employed are the only people who can really say what they like about the fields they operate in.

  2. Auferstanden aus Ruinen
    February 10, 2013

    How does this improve working class women’s lives?

    • Week Woman
      February 10, 2013

      I don’t really understand the point you’re making here, unless it’s to distinguish between working class women and experts? This is a false dichotomy – working class women are experts in many things. In general however, diversifying the voices we hear in the media is good for everyone.

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