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Now you see them, now you don’t

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TelevisionWe thought women over 50 were disappearing from our screens. Now Harriet Harman has proof.

The problem of women broadcasters being sidelined and ignored as they age is something that has been discussed at length in the media, and there is much anecdotal evidence to that effect.

Now, the Older Women’s Commission, set up by Labour’s shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman, has published irrefutable evidence in terms of figures to support what everyone already knew was true.

Despite prior protestations of broadcasting bosses to the contrary.

Once a woman broadcaster reaches a certain age, she loses her employability.

According to the findings of the Commission, which was set up to consider the experience of older women in the workplace, as carers and in public life, less than one in five of the presenters over the age of fifty employed by the country’s major broadcasting organisations is a woman.

The research looked at cross sectional employment figures (gender and age) of the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Sky News, Channel 5 and ITN.

Results showed that, overall, women account for 48 per cent of on-screen presenters under the age of fifty, but only 18 per cent of on-screen presenters over the age of 50.

The percentage of women over fifty, when considered as a proportion of the entire onscreen workforce, both men and women of any age, was a microscopic five per cent.

However, it was clear that some broadcasters were performing better than others.

ITV had an impressive 55 per cent of their over-50 presenters being women.  The BBC had a less impressive 20 per cent.

That’s not really a great number.

Until you compare it to Sky News who employ just 9 per cent of women in their over 50 category.

Shocking?

Well, ITN and Channel 5 employ none.

And it’s not just the on-screen talent who are affected by ageist sexism… or is it sexist ageism?

Only 7 per cent of the total TV workforce, on and off screen, are women over the age of 50.

This is completely unrepresentative of a country where the majority of people who are over 50 are women – 53.1 per cent in fact.

Harriet Harman was far from pleased.

“The figures provided by broadcasters show clearly that once female presenters hit 50, their days on-screen are numbered.

“There is a combination of ageism and sexism that hits women on TV that doesn’t apply to men in the same way.”

She did go on to say, “It is an encouraging first step that broadcasters have been open in providing these statistics. Their response shows that they all recognise that this is an important issue that needs to be addressed.

“I will be publishing these figures annually so we are able to monitor progress.”

Let’s hope she does.

Although the figures speak for themselves, the aggregation of them was complicated.

ITV responded to the inquiry, providing only general percentages and no raw data.

The BBC also included radio presenters in their figures, making it difficult to extrapolate between what we can see and what we can hear

Presumably not being able to see an older woman makes her more palatable.

Miriam O’Reilly, who was at the centre of a much-publicised age-related employment tribunal with the BBC – which she won – must have felt utterly vindicated.

She had this to say: “In the lead-up to my tribunal against the BBC, I knew it would help to know how many women over 50 broadcasters employed.

“They wouldn’t give me this information, citing data-protection issues. So I have enjoyed being involved in getting the answers out of them.

“And to see that this is not just about prime-time shows and news and current affairs but is across all output.

“All broadcasters say they are committed to the fair representation of older women but clearly they are not. They can’t make that statement now we have these figures.”

Sadly, despite the depressing reality of the situation, there was little sympathy from some corners.

Journalist Carol Sarler said that most of the women who are now being judged and marginalised because of their age and looks, should have thought about that when they were younger, when they were “happy to trade on their looks in order to get ahead of ‘plainer’ women”.

Sarler continued, “The problems didn’t start when on-screen women got older; they started when they were 25 and perfectly happy to muscle past their plainer-Jane colleagues by primping and preening themselves into what passes for contemporary beauty: big eyes, glossed lips, defined breasts, dieted hips.

“They sold their souls to the Devil decades ago and now comes payback.”

She also said that older women broadcasters should not have a beef with contemporaries such as David Dimbleby and John Simpson who seem to be indestructible, no matter what age they notch up.

She said that it was “irrelevant” that these men now look like “dinosaurs” because they were never hired for their looks in the first place.

So, women like Joan Bakewell and Selina Scott (Sarler’s comparators) were hired (by male bosses) for their looks?  You admit that Carol?  And that’s ok?  Did they have not an iota of talent?

The fact that the highly intelligent, erudite and articulate Joan Bakewell is still described as ‘the thinking man’s’ crumpet’ is somehow her own fault for also being attractive?

Remember, also, that for many years, the physical appearance of women on screen was largely dictated by male bosses.

Happily, it looks as though employers will no longer be able to dictate this, if Harriet Harman holds true to her promise of a yearly audit.

The bottom line is that, in television, like in any other profession, the job should always go to the person best suited to that job, regardless of what they look like.

Would men still watch Saturday afternoon football in their droves, even if it was presented by a monkey, rather than an Armani clad 7-figure earning ex footballer?

You bet they would. I rest my case.

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