As Broadcast kicks off its Expert Women campaign, Lis Howell explains why it’s needed.
Nearly two years ago, I wrote an article for Broadcast about some research we’d done at City University.
We counted the number of women on TV and radio news. When I wrote that the Today programme had run for 20 minutes without a female voice, I thought: “That can’t be right.” But it was; in fact, that was a good day.
Now it seems everyone is asking: where are the women? The Cultural Diversity Network (CDN) report said the public wanted more older women on screen. The real scandal is not about the female journalists or presenters, it’s about the huge gap between the representation of male and female experts.
Our latest research showed that year on year from 2010 to 2011, there was no improvement in the number of women experts used on TV and radio. Where there were larger numbers of women interviewees, they were likely to be shown in vulnerable roles.
There may be more women on Daybreak or Radio 5 Live, but if most are women with problems, is that what we want? I don’t think so.
During the four weeks we carried out monitoring, Today was the worst offender, with six times as many male experts as female. Sky’s Sunrise and BBC Breakfast were better with four, and Daybreak and Radio 5 Live both averaged three times as many male as female guests.
But the women were more often case studies or victims, not experts. Why not?
Experts tend to be either professionally knowledgeable or campaign leaders. Perhaps female campaigners break all the rules of women as soft-spoken comforters or homemakers, and producers don’t want their strident tones on the show.
Professionally expert women seem much more represented in the US or Canada; maybe it’s a UK disinclination to field older women generally – and experts are usually older.
But broadcasters aren’t always the worst culprits – PRs and corporate press officers don’t always select women to represent their companies. They are even more conservative and nervy than the TV and radio producers.
Putting a woman forward is a risk. It requires steely nerves and you have to do it more than once to get good at it. So a woman’s lack of confidence is compounded by press officers choosing ‘spokesmen’, and the ‘boys club’ mentality of other experts who don’t want competition.
Change won’t happen because Mark Thompson says it should be “addressed” or because MPs or government ministers complain. It’s easy to bat back the allegations, as I did to one of my nicest male colleagues when he said of this column: “Are you banging on about that again?”
But it’s a serious matter and needs serious campaigners – male as well as female. If the industry pledges to increase awareness, that will make a big difference, but PRs must follow suit and accept that their clients and customers want to see more authoritative women.
The best way is for other authoritative women to tell them. What’s stopping them? Smokescreen arguments – “oh, you know, men like the sound of their own voices” or “older women have more sense than to want to be on TV” – are just defensive, as is the argument that this is trivial and we should be campaigning for more women MPs or board directors.
What’s the point of having more influential women if you never see or hear them on air?
Each month at City we’ll be monitoring five radio and TV programmes for a week and Broadcast will publish the numbers – how many women appear and what role they play. We will be naming and shaming. And banging on.
➤ Lis Howell is director of broadcasting at City University’s department of journalism
We hope broadcasters and other groups supporting equality will sign our pledge asking for a greater commitment to using female experts in news and current affairs. However, we recognise that without a specific target, little could change.
We are therefore encouraging people to sign a separate petition that asks broadcasters to aim for a 30% target. This is not a quota but a minimum target we believe is realistic to aspire to. It is an initial benchmark set for the end of the year, but we hope in the future, that figure could reach 50%.
“We the undersigned seek assurance from major news organisations including BBC, ITN and Sky that they will aim to ensure that at least 30% of the contributors to news and current affairs programmes are women, and that women experts comprise at least 30% of the experts used in interviews and for comment in news and current affairs. This should be an annual minimum target.”