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Broadcasters urged to increase numbers of female experts on air

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Julie Tomlin
WVoN co-editor

Broadcasters in the UK are being called to sign a pledge that they will escape the ‘women as case studies or victims’ trap and invite more female experts on their news and current affairs shows.

Channel 4 News is the latest news programme to sign up to the ‘Expert Women‘ campaign launched by industry magazine Broadcast and City University’s journalism programme this month and it is hoped that ITV News, which is produced by the same company, ITN, and Sky News, will soon follow suit.

The campaign, which includes a petition calling on the BBC, ITN and Sky News to ensure 30 per cent of ‘experts’ used on TV and radio are women, was the result of research carried out two years ago by Lis Howell, City University’s director of broadcasting and head of the MA courses in broadcast and TV journalism,  and her students.

On a “good day” you could listen to Radio 4’s Today programme for 20 minutes without hearing a female voice, they found.

More recently, there has been a focus on the numbers of women who work in broadcasting – Sound Women was launched last year with the aim of raising the profile of women working in the radio industry (see WVoN story).

After the Cultural Diversity Network recently published a report showing that the public wanted more older women on screen (see WVoN story), BBC director general Mark Thompson also admitted he had “got it wrong” when it came to employing older women.

But the “real scandal” is not about the female journalists or presenters, but the “huge gap” that exists between male and female experts, says Howell.

“We started off with all women but then realised that among professional journalists, it’s bad but what was really bad was the numbers of members of the public taking part,” she says.

“You get women on talking about diseases and family and lifestyle stuff, but you don’t get them as authority figures.”

This absence of women is also partly explained by age, says Howell: “Authority figures tend by their nature to be older and older women aren’t as attractive on TV and radio to producers and reporters.”

There has been little or no improvement in recent years according to a lengthier research project carried out by students over four weeks last summer.

The Today programme had six times as many male as female experts on every show, Sky’s Sunrise and BBC Breakfast did better with four while Daybreak and Radio 5 Live averaged three times as many male as female guests.

The research also showed that women were much likely to take part in programmes as case studies or victims.

Channel 4 News has said that improving the male-female ratio on the programme will be a “big focus” during the coming year.

It also said it would look at why there are so few spokespeople for organisations are women, why women appeared less confident about “debating a polemic point” and why, “from anecdotal guestbooker evidence” they seem less likely to consider themselves “experts” on a topic.

Howell, who will be overseeing ongoing monitoring which will be published each month in Broadcast, said it was hoped a directory of women experts would be produced to help broadcasters with the task.

But women – particularly older women – need to be willing to go on air as experts, says Howells, who after a period of saying ‘no’ to requests to appear on TV or radio says:

“I pull myself up short and say ‘look, just do it and if you make a mess of it, you make a mess of it and if you look like a wreck, you look like a wreck.”

But if women’s looks are an issue on TV, it doesn’t explain their absence from radio, she says:

“The irony of it is that it’s even worse than TV for both professional women and interviewees as well. It isn’t just about looks by any means because if it was, radio would be full of argumentative, interesting, combative fascinating women, and it’s not.”

By agreeing to speak as an expert on TV and radio, women will encourage others to follow suit, says Howell.

“I appreciate that a lot of women don’t want to do it – but that’s because women don’t do it,” she says.

“There’s just this whole thing that if you are a woman and you express an opinion, I think you are more likely to be criticised, so it’s hard for the trailblazers.”

  1. vicki wharton says:

    Check out the piece in the Spectator and Guardian about women voicing opinions in the media – it isn’t just critisism women are subject to: rape and death threats, personal abuse about their looks and sexuality – these are intimidation which the editors of the respective publications allow as I suspect that alot of the editors secretly enjoy their male privelige and so have a vested interest in having other men take a women down under the editor’s protection as he values men’s freedom of speech more than women’s.

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