“Tits, Tots, and Ta – as in ‘Ta very much.’” That’s how Penny Marshall, Social Affairs editor at ITV and veteran news reporter, describes the hurdles faced by women in broadcasting when she spoke at the Women on Air Conference at City University last week. Tits, as in, appearance, come first, naturally, because we live in a society where this happens, and because Jon Snow’s socks will never be scrutinised as heavily as Cathy Newman’s dress or, indeed, Kay Burley’s jawline. Next, it’s Tots – that is, motherhood and how breastfeeding cycles might fit into the gruelling shift patterns of 24 hour news. Finally, we’ll come up against the most pervasive obstacle of them all – the "Ta very much", which has loomed since day one and which will probably recur on a daily basis: The idea that we should be grateful to be there at all. It’s part of the same psychological complex that makes us less likely than men to ask for a pay rise, even when we know we’re being paid less in the same role. Even the Government Equalities Office, headed by a woman, fails to recruit enough women to senior positions and pays men more than women.
If you think all of this sounds grimly 1990s, in a sense, you’d be right. Professor Karen Ross and Dr Cindy Carter at the Global Media Monitoring Project first started tracking the presence of women working in news – in TV, radio, newspapers and, most recently, online and social media – in the days when pop culture told us that the path to female empowerment lay just beyond a thicket of tailored suits and polyester foulards. And their latest research shows that – fashion aside – little has changed. A recent analysis of output from more than 100 countries found that the number of women appearing in news media has increased by just 7% in the past 20 years. “At this rate”, said Professor Ross, also speaking at the Conference, “we’ll reach parity by the end of the century – by which time I’ll be long gone and my daughters will be too”. More worryingly, things more or less “ground to a halt” in 2010, after which there may even be signs of regression. As it stands, only 24% of those seen in the news, either as anchors or eye-witnesses, are women.
Male experts outnumber female experts by almost 4 to 1 on both the BBC’s and ITV’s News at 10
It’s a troubling picture, and one corroborated by new research – carried out by Lis Howell, Director of Broadcasting at City University – into the male/female ratio on the UK's primetime news shows over a six-month period between October 2015 and March this year. Howell’s study, which considers the gender split across three categories – including experts and presenters – shows that male experts outnumbered female experts by almost 4 to 1 on both the BBC’s and ITV’s News at 10. Channels 4 and 5, Sky and BBC Radio 4’s Today programme fared slightly better, with (only) twice as many men for women. Howell describes presenting, an area susceptible to greater swings because of the small number of individuals involved, as “still very male dominated”, in spite of a 25% increase in women in the past three years. The uptick – from 4.4 to 3.3 men per woman – is in large part down to the “Laura-Katya effect”, she explained, referring to Laura Kuenssberg, who was made BBC Political Editor in 2015, and Katya Adler, who succeeded Gavin Hewitt as the Corporation’s Europe editor in 2014. Sky managed an even split, while ITV’s figure leapt to 5.1 following Tom Bradby’s appointment as main news anchor. Channel 5 was alone in featuring marginally more female presenters than male, and it's no coincidence that the channel stands alone in having a woman at the helm – “a weird novelty, said Cristina Nicoletti Squires, Editor of Channel 5 News. Clearly, if change is coming, it’s neither fast nor broad enough. In part, this is because issues around diversity and fair representation are tangled up in debates around whether the duty of the media is to reflect our flawed society back at us, or to play a proactive role in remodelling it. Quotas and women-only recruitment lists have been mooted as ways to counter the tendency among (white, middle-class and mostly middle-aged male) recruiters to appoint candidates in their likeness, and, since early last year, Channel 4 has sought to "incentivise” senior managers and editors by linking variable annual pay to the attainment of diversity targets – the flip-side of all this being the deflating implication that change can only come through heavy-handed intervention and punishment. Add to this the perverse incentive that, for those women who do, in Howell’s words, "stick their heads above the parapet”, a particularly virulent strain of troll will be waiting to greet them. Just ask Laura Kuenssberg. Or Cathy Newman. Or Mary Beard… But perhaps the trickiest obstacle of them all is the tendency among women towards self-doubt and deprecation. Imposter Syndrome – a term coined by clinical psychologists in 1978 to denote high-achievers who dismiss their own success as good luck, timing, or a result of fooling others into considering them brighter than they really are – is far more prevalent among women than men, and is thought to be one of the main reasons for the disproportionately low number of female experts on our screens. One editor in the conference audience last week shared her experience of recruiting “experts” for a show: while the first man you call will identify himself as “expert”, she said, you’ll have to ring six or so women until you find one who considers herself “expert enough”.
While the first man you call will identify himself as 'expert', you’ll have to ring six or so women until you find one who considers herself 'expert enough'
It’s a matter which Francesca Unsworth, BBC executive and Director of the World Service, had addressed that morning, conceding in a speech that the Corporation would have to “think harder about why women would not want to appear on our output if they can avoid it." She asked: "Is it just because they are inclined to think they are less 'expert' than men? Is it because they find the adversarial nature of our interviewing something they are not keen to engage with? Is it because as soon as you have a public profile you run the risk of being trolled by social media bullies? We possibly have to harden people up, give them techniques about how they might deal with it." With that in mind, she said, the BBC will run a second round of its hugely popular Expert Women days later this year, offering intensive training and support to women looking to work in broadcasting. The demand is clearly there – the first round in January 2013 attracted over 2,000 applicants for just over 150 places – as is its impact: of the 164 women who took part, 73 went on to make 374 appearances across TV and radio (as of December 2013). Insofar as strength comes in numbers, it’s not unreasonable to think that if we can bring women up the line, the novelty factor will fall away, along with the “Kick Me” signs. There’s hope, then, in the news that, following culture secretary John Whittingdale’s long-awaited White Paper on the future of the BBC, gender parity by 2020 has been enshrined in the Corporation’s new charter. Not to mention the launch of Project Diamond, a diversity-monitoring scheme subscribed to by all the main broadcasters, which sets out to build an accurate image of the workforce involved in all programmes, both on- and off-screen, from the catering staff to the romantic lead. “This is the only project of its kind in the world”, explained Amanda Ariss, executive director of the Creative Diversity Network, the body charged with tackling under-representation in all areas, industry-wide. “To volunteer, as these broadcasters have, to reveal themselves in this way publicly is unprecedented.” With the first report due to be released in early 2017, said Ariss, "This data will mean that the lights are on and there’s nowhere to hide. Never underestimate the strength of the embarrassment factor." Add to this the news that, following a confidential settlement, the BBC has granted equal pay to a group of unnamed female television presenters, plus the appointment, announced this week, of Noreena Hertz as ITV’s Economics Editor, and it seems the campaign is finally gathering pace as we move, hurdle by hurdle, bulletin by bulletin, towards the kind of revolution that will be televised.