Broadcaster came top with a ratio of 3:1 male to female experts in April, says Lis Howell.
In the latest chapter of City University’s ongoing investigation into the use of women experts on TV and radio, we monitored four flagship PSB news programmes in April. Overall, the figures were better than for the programmes we monitored in March, but there might be a specific reason for that.
On ITV’s News at 10, there were four men to every woman expert, and in each programme, male experts spoke for about 14 minutes in total, while women spoke for 10. So the women experts, though in a significant minority, got a disproportionately high amount of airtime.
On BBC2’s Newsnight, the ratio was three to one, with male experts talking for a total of nearly 15 minutes in each episode, and women for six.
BBC News at 10 had a ratio of just under four men for every woman guest expert. However, the women got a bit more airtime than the numbers might suggest, with the men speaking for only two-and-a-half times as long as the women.
Channel 4 News was much better: a ratio of three male experts to every female, and the men speaking for only one-and-a-half times as long as the women.
So our star of the month award goes to Channel 4 News. After last month’s figures, which showed a ratio of nine men to every woman in its Budget coverage, our monitors had an interesting exchange with the C4 News editor. The programme is certainly making every effort to improve the ratio and monitor its output, and in April, it almost achieved the 30% women experts we had hoped for in our petition and pledge.
But before we get the flags out to celebrate April’s figures, it’s worth noting that a major story in the week we monitored was the deportation (or not) of Abu Qatada, which meant home secretary Theresa May and her Labour shadow Yvette Cooper appeared regularly.
Our monitors were starting to get quite excited at the improvement in the ratio of women to men experts across the board, until the figures showed that it was slighter than they thought and centred on this one story. Clearly, the appearance of women experts, and women senior politicians, is still relatively rare, so when they are given airtime, the impression it gives of female representation is greater than the reality.
So should we forget the campaign to get more female experts on TV and radio and just try to get more women in power? Sounds logical, but there is some evidence from producers and researchers we have spoken to that even when women are in power, they are not chosen to represent their organisations if a man is available.
An equally compelling argument for campaigning for more women experts on TV is the need for role models, summed up in the catchy American tag: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
We know that hundreds of people, some of whom have never thought about it before, are now prepared to say they agree. The Broadcast petition to improve the ratio of women to men on news programmes now stands at more than 1,000 signatures.
We have had criticism that the petition is asking for inequality by only demanding that 30% of the experts be female, not 50%. That’s a hard one to answer – except by saying we have to be pragmatic. We can’t expect journalists to dump stories because they can’t get women speakers. It’s no coincidence that a story about goal-line technology had four male experts. Much more depressing was a story about breast cancer featuring two male experts and one female victim.
Where an organisation has a man and a woman at the same level of seniority, we want assurance that a woman will have an equal chance of being ‘put up’ for interview. So, PRs and communications officers, watch out. The spotlight is on you too – and there are now more than 1,000 people actively on your case.
Lis Howell is director of broadcasting at City University, London
- ITV1 News at 10 4:1
- BBC2 Newsnight 3:1
- BBC1 News at 10 4:1*
- Channel 4 News 3:1
(Period covers 16 to 20 April)