Female contributors are rarely seen on serious news programmes and this seems unlikely to change anytime soon, says Lis Howell.

Why aren’t there more women on TV and radio? Do we care? Lots of people don’t, including the five who responded to a letter I wrote to The Times in May. One criticised my grammar, two said the issue was irrelevant, and two were just rude. As far as I could tell, they were all men. It certainly hit a nerve with them.

But equality matters. And research we have carried out at City University shows that progress towards equality on TV and radio is stuck, and there’s a mystery about why.

Earlier this year, we logged the appearances of women on the Today programme, BBC Breakfast, GMTV, Sky’s Sunrise, Channel 4 News and Sky’s Live At Five. Our research showed that male contributors outnumbered women by four to one. Even when women did appear, they were overwhelmingly victims, case studies and vox pops - rarely experts.

My initial reaction was that there was innate prejudice against women authority figures by broadcasters. In Broadcast in May 2010, I accused our industry of “a systemic failure in production teams to secure women guests”. But was I right?

Female quotas

To find out, I emailed 100 former students now working as guest bookers, news-desk assistants and meeters/greeters. I asked them if they were ever pressured into taking male rather than female guests. They overwhelmingly held the opposite view - that broadcasters want, and frequently struggle to get, female guests. One remarked that “after every show I record the gender and ethnicity of the guests. I have seen producers settle for guests who would not be the most authoritative, simply because they are female”.

Yet he also says that he can’t get enough women experts. Producers have to meet a female quota but “feel happier to book the tried-and-tested male contributors and save their ‘female quota’ for the lifestyle/entertainment stories”. Another ex-student wrote: “I know our guest bookers (who are all female, incidentally) always jokily cheer when they find a female expert.”

So if producers and researchers are working so hard to get women on their programmes, why are they failing?

Three reasons are starting to emerge. First, despite what my exstudents say, there IS some innate prejudice. The editor of the Today programme went on record in March saying women presenters did not have a “thick enough skin” to cope with the programme’s “incredibly tough environment”. Having appeared on Today, it was the incredibly tough croissants that bothered me most, but our research indicates that this attitude stretches to interviewees and guests. During its election coverage on 26 April, Today ran a feature for more than 10 minutes on the campaign in the West Country with no female contribution at all.

Another student wrote: “I worked on a political documentary where not a single contributor was female although the majority of the production team were. The possible women interviewees were felt not to be the heavy hitters.”

Politics is a real problem area, probably because our seat of government is dominated by men with limited experience of women in authority. A politician recently approached me about media advisers. The list was all male and I knew more about the subject than most of them. But I wasn’t on it. As a woman, I was there to provide a service - checking the names - not to be treated as an expert myself. I also know of several senior broadcasters with a political role who just don’t rate women unless they are their own mentees.

The second reason for the lack of women experts on TV relates to access. Another ex-student wrote: “Having specifically asked for female speakers several times on different subjects, I found press offices very resistant to offering anybody but their tried, tested and, predictably, male spokesperson.”

More research needs to be done into the facts and fi gures behind the alleged prejudice of PRs. Why do they field so many men? Is it the conservatism that goes with the territory? Or is it something deeper relating to the public’s lack of trust in female experts?

Interestingly, several of the students who responded to my request for information said things like: “Obviously there are certain areas such as fashion/body language/celebrity where commentators tend to be women.” Why? Perhaps because these things are seen as trivial and therefore safe areas for female comment.

The perception is that fashion is fl uff and celebs are silly so it’s ok for women to be experts. And that’s what women are really interested in, right? Diets and make-up.

The collusion problem

This gets us to the third, and most complex, reason. For a majority to be discriminated against in this way means one of two things: either violence or collusion. As no one is beating back women experts from being on the box, the answer has to be collusion.

Women don’t want to appear. To establish why, our research needs to look at the logs for viewers’ comments.

My hunch would be that a high proportion of the comments relate to the way women look. In 1993, when I was the shortlived launch director of GMTV, I mentioned at a private, in-house meeting that I thought breakfast TV presenters should look “fanciable”. A print journalist invited to the meeting wrote this up and the story took off like a rocket.

One of the many fascinating things about this was the way all the newspapers assumed with howls of glee or outrage that I was only talking about women - whereas I had applied the same stricture to men.

The look of male TV presenters is still a non-issue nearly 20 years later. The press concentrates almost solely on how women presenters look. There is a whole magazine industry based on snide comments about the weight of minor celebrities. The emphasis on looks means women don’t want to be judged in an area where men don’t need to worry.

It’s a double-edged sword.

Because looks are so important, there are more women on TV than on radio, simply because they are seen. But a TV appearance is fraught with risk. Again, an ex-student writes: “I have found that, when interviewing members of the general public, women are much more nervous than men about talking on camera.”

But if this is true, why aren’t women clamouring to be on radio, where looks aren’t an issue? We haven’t yet analysed figures for commercial radio but, anecdotally, it would seem there’s an even greater dearth of women.

Here the problem really does seem to be prejudice. There’s a sense that a female voice should be soft or sexy. Women are easily labelled as hysterical or excitable just because their voices are higher pitched. So yet again, women don’t want to take the risk of being criticised, so they don’t go for it.

Gaining confidence

It’s all a confidence issue. You need practice and role models to gain confidence, and women have neither. So they aren’t as good at performing on TV, and they won’t be until more of them appear more often.

As well as the anecdotal material, we need to get hold of more facts. We will continue to do the quantitative research at City, and will be extending it to the PR and communications industry. If we show that women themselves naturally defer to men, as one of my Times correspondents alleged, then that will upset a lot of feminists, including me.

Thankfully, the response of the young women guest bookers would indicate that is not the case - they want women experts on air. But if we show that society’s response to female experts on TV and radio is so unpleasant that women won’t take on the challenge, then we are touching on a misogyny much wider and deeper than a bit of prejudice on Today.

We hope to be regularly publishing the results of the research in Broadcast. We need as much help as we can get. If you feel you would like to contribute, please contact me at the address below. But please don’t write to tell me that this is irrelevant. It’s not. When I started in broadcasting in 1973, there were still managers of both sexes who believed that women should not read the news because they had no natural authority. It’s my worst professional nightmare that after 37 years, their view still prevails.

Lis Howell is director of broadcasting at the Graduate School of Journalism, City University. She can be contacted at l.howell@city.ac.uk


“I researched a programme on military history and they had a female expert. I must admit that at first I wasn’t sure about her credibility, which is terrible. I’m not a male chauvinist. I think I felt this way because I was so unused to seeing people like her contributing”

“When you ask women to come in, they won’t. They have family issues and stuff like that. Men are easier to get. There are more male professionals available as experts, but I wouldn’t say we actively picked them based on gender”

“There is often so much pressure to get hold of a contributor quickly, especially on rolling news, that researchers will automatically seek out people who have already appeared on the programme”

“It’s worse with indies - gender balance is the last thing on their minds. Their main priority is to interview someone so that they have enough footage. And executive producers like to see a grey-haired older man on the programme. They think this gives it more credibility”

“The people with most power and success are generally still men, and national news tends to deal with the ‘bigger’ stories and therefore ‘bigger’ players. There were always ‘stronger’ men available for our political programme - especially strange when the entire production team consisted of women”

“Women are still objectified more than men. They need to be beautiful and nurturing. We interview a lot of chief executives and women aren’t there in the boardroom”