Why are women still not getting the top jobs at the BBC?

The BBC is the most watched channel in the UK, racking up a quarter of a billion viewers each week world wide  in 2013. So surely, I cannot be the only one who sighs every time I turn on my TV to see a man staring back at me. Surely I cannot be the only one who pulls out their hair at the ‘diverse’ panel BBC Question Time has to offer. Where are all the women? Well, we make up 55.6 per cent of journalists so we are here, we are just not seen.

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Only 24 per cent of people seen, heard or read about in the media are women, research from GMMP shows. These figures were taken from this year, so anyone who thinks sexism still isn’t a problem in the media is sadly mistaken. The Guardian published research in 2012, where they found that men typically outnumber women as ‘experts’ by four to one on TV and radio programmes in the UK.  As Eleanor Mills, Chair of Women In Journalism points out, “the whole of the Western culture for the last 3,000 years has said to women that they should be quiet, they should be shackled to their husbands, they should be seen and not heard. And actually everything about journalism is the opposite.” Just by watching Question Time on BBC1 you can see this stereotype being portrayed. Currently in the top executive jobs at the BBC, there are 17 men and just six women, which could explain why women are often ignored or invisible.

Sadly, sexism is not just an issue for women within journalism, so is ageism. If you are young, you do not have enough experience (unless you have a pretty face) and if you are older, you are not appropriate for TV screen or radio. Even within local BBC stations, women face discrimination. I once invited BBC Points West to an event I was organising with a group of female friends. When the reporter arrived, we were made to feel belittled as he walked off saying ‘I want to talk to a man.” Former Countryfile presenter Miriam O’Reilly, 53, won an ageism case against the BBC back in 2011 when the show was moved to primetime and she was sacked. The double standards are clear, as the BBC still have no problem employing Bruce Forsyth who is now 87. As O’Reilly put it: “I don’t think having wrinkles is offensive.” She said she knows of at least six women in their fifties that have been forced out of their jobs on news programmes such as Panorama and Newsnight when they were still on “top form”. Even when reporting on Tim Peake’s take off to space this week, the BBC reported that he was the first Briton in space, when in fact it was Helen Sharman in 1991.

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Language used whilst reporting is hugely influential, which is why the BBC need to consider that maybe this is one area where they are going wrong. At the Conservative conference earlier this year, the BBC News at 10 thought it would be appropriate to comment on the way Theresa May was dressed, even though Boris Johnson’s ridiculous hair had no mention. Sadly, this perpetuates the idea that women are only valued by what they look like. When confronted, Roger Mosey, former Head of BBC Television News avoided my question about why sexist language was used in BBC News programs and what he did to try and stop it, simply stating that “discrimination is everywhere.” Sexist language that goes unnoticed is lethal for encouraging casual sexism. If the BBC are broadcasting using this kind of language then there is nothing to stop them doing the same in the work place. As journalists, the BBC must start to understand the importance of language choice. Director of radio for the BBC, Helen Boaden said “I would say there is still a great deal of sexism within all forms of media which those creating it do not recognise as such. They think it’s ” the way the world is” as opposed to something we can make choices about.”

So what can we do about it? Fight. Keep on fighting until we get the equality we deserve. Mills said “somebody saying no and shoving the door in your face is the start of every story.” Make people aware of the choices they have to support women through campaigning and public speaking. A lot of people don’t know the way the BBC are treating women because the only way they would find out is from the media, but because the BBC are the media it is just not a covered topic. Of course women shouldn’t get jobs just because they are women but women should not be denied jobs because they are women either. Everyone should be judged on their skills and their talent as journalists, not their looks, gender, race or sexuality.

When Tony Hall became the new Director General for the BBC things looked hopeful. He admitted that the ratio of male and female broadcasters was “not right” and said he wanted to “celebrate the contribution of women at the BBC”. That was three years ago, and now Nick Henegan from the BBC Press Office says “Half of BBC Local Radio breakfast shows have a female presenter, meeting the ambition set soon after Tony Hall became Director General, when it was just 20 per cent.” Mills agreed that “there’s more awareness that the papers do need more women at the top tables. I think change is happening quite slowly but I think we are seeing more women in the senior positions. There’s a lot more women in what my friend calls the marzipan layer, just below the icing. And there’s even a woman editor at The Guardian.”

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So, is there hope? Of course there is. Mills’ advice for women starting in the industry is to “be really brave, speak up for what you believe in. If you think something is interesting, say so… Hang in there, speak up, don’t rule yourself out and don’t leave before you lead.”


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