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Women Experts – or the lack of them – on TV and radio news

25 April 2014

Lis Howell

Despite broadcasters’ reporting strenuous efforts to improve the ratio, male experts outnumber female experts by 4-1 on TV and radio news programmes. The figure of 4-1 hasn’t changed in two years.

So why is this? Is it a reflection of society? Do women in society have less important roles than men, to the ratio of 80/20? No, that’s not the reason. The evidence is that the ratio of authoritative or expert roles in society is much more 70 per cent to 30 per cent, with a growing proportion of women getting important jobs. So is it childcare keeping women off the airwaves? No, that’s not the reason either. Only a third of women in the UK have children under 15. So even if every woman with a child was unable to be on TV or radio at any time, there would still be a ratio of 70 per cent men, 30 per cent women available to be experts on air.

So could it be that women are just considered less interesting and less important, by broadcasters? Now, there’s a thought. The evidence is that although attitudes are now changing, until very recently the ‘go to’ people were men, because they looked the part and journalists didn’t like to take risks. And women themselves lacked confidence and self-belief. 

Where does this information come from? Students at City University surveyed over 200 news programmes between March 2012 and October 2013. Then between October 2013 and March 2014 they concentrated on five titles – Sky News evening bulletins, BBC News at Ten, ITV News at Ten, Today on BBC Radio 4, and Channel 4 News, surveying a further 125 episodes. Students surveyed five consecutive programmes of each title each month.

And the figure of male to female experts always came out at 4-1.

One programme, Today, has shown an improvement in the number of women experts from 2011 (from 6-1 to 4-1, wow!) but it is still the bottom of the class for female participants overall, with fewer female presenters and reporters than other flagship news programmes. In 2011 the editor of the programme was Ceri Thomas who commented that there was no opportunity for women journalists on his show, "because it is too tough an environment for novices, frankly." The idea that there were women broadcasters who already existed, who were able to cope with the Today programme, seemed beyond his comprehension. This belief – that women as authority figures are not quite ‘up to it’ – was prevalent in the broadcasting industry. Guest getters whom I interviewed said “You learnt from the people that had been doing it for years. When you wanted someone on say, retail, you went to X or Y (both male), that’s just what you did…” and also that programme guests were “generally white, over 40, male, in suits or uniforms”. 

I received 51 questionnaires from junior broadcast journalists, and interviewed a further dozen producers and newsdesk journalists from Sky News, BBC News, and ITN. 82 per cent said they actively tried to get more women on air, particularly since the start of the Broadcast magazine Expert Women campaign, which launched using the City University surveys, in March 2012. But they were still conflicted, believing passionately they had to get ‘the right person’ or the ‘top’ person and yet also being under pressure to get women in a male dominated hierarchy. Some were defiantly against what they considered to be ‘social engineering’ – choosing weaker women speakers over good men just to even the score. Others said things like “the women just aren’t there – you can’t work with what you haven’t got”.

But even a brief look at society generally shows that for example, agencies which provide expert witnesses in courts have a ratio of 2.3-1 males to females on their books. If you combine the figures for the cabinet and the shadow cabinet, the ratio of top politicians is 2.3-1 as well. So why do broadcasters continue to field 4 male experts to every female?

Part of the problem lies with the women experts. Guest getters also reported that women were notoriously difficult to recruit, and needed far more persuasion and reassurance. In 2013 the BBC Academy looked at the problem from this perspective and decided to hold ‘training days’ for women experts. They offered 30 places and over 2,000 women applied. So the BBC rolled it out to the regions as well. I sent questionnaires to 164 of the women who had taken part. 31 replied. Crucially, 75 per cent reported lack of confidence, and 45 per cent actually cited pressure from peers and the fear of being ‘pushy’. It seems the Academy days for women were more about endorsement than about training, and that even astrophysicists and leading museum curators found it hard to put themselves forward as experts for TV and radio, though they clearly wanted to – otherwise why would they have taken part? There is no doubt that journalists have to put in that extra effort to get expert women to take part. But that is not social engineering. It’s just being fair.

However in turn, management must recognise that extra efforts need to be made, or junior journalists, the ‘guest getters’ will go on perpetuating the stereotype of male authority. In any case, it’s unfair in turn to dump the burden of evening up the ratio on the least experienced people in the newsroom. Especially the world of flagship news is male dominated. Figures show that men reporters outnumber women reporters by 3-1 for no good reason, and even male presenters outnumber female presenters by nearly 2-1.

At least Heads of News seem to be taking notice. At a conference at City University on Friday 4 April 2014, around 100 people, men and women, turned up to discuss the figures revealed by the research. The mood was astonishingly honest. One senior female academic confided that she had turned down a TV appearance a few weeks earlier and now regretted it. One senior news executive confessed that he had accepted, without thinking, a female worker’s decision not to return after maternity leave – but that he would call her back and talk it through that afternoon. Small things - but incremental change is still change. And there were other insights. In a funny but frank session, four young female reporters vowed to stay ‘on the road’ and to still have babies, even though they had been told that reporting was not a suitable job for a mother. Dame Tessa Jowell MP called for the distressing ratio of male to female experts to be changed, and Caroline Criado-Perez urged women to deal with hostility and sneering and still come forward. And Krishnan Guru Murthy of Channel Four News called for a concerted attempt to change the monopoly of white middle class men in power and on air.

Of course, there have been initiatives before which have been and gone and changed nothing. But this time, women and men together are striving for change, and it seems that the Heads of News may be paying more than lip service, this time, to a better ratio of female to male experts. And reporters. And presenters. The conference was popular enough for City University to commit to repeating it next year, with another year’s figures to discuss. Is it too much to hope for a move in the right direction next time around?     

Lis Howell is a senior lecturer in the department of journalism at City University, London.

Tags: , diversity, equality, broadcasting, gender, research, women, media representation