Where are the women?

Originally uploaded by MeLicA.

This morning Radio 4’s Today programme hosted a discussion between three successful career women about the existence of a glass ceiling preventing women from progressing in their careers. It was part of former Commons speaker Betty Boothroyd’s stint as guest editor of the show.

The discussion involved Lorraine Heggessey, the first female controller of BBC1, Lucy Neville Rolfe, executive director and a member of the board of Tesco  and Rachel Lomax, former deputy governor of the Bank of England. They agreed that often women need to speak up a bit more and overcome the barriers in their own mind, such as fear of failure.

Heggessey said men are often better at pointing out all the things they can do whereas women are often stuck on what they can’t do. If men do get that voice in their head “they squash it down,” she said.

“I see men going for jobs two years before they are ready for them and women going for jobs two years after them because they feel they have to tick every box,” said Heggessey.

This past month the under representation of women in the British media has come under the microscope like never before. In an article for The Guardian, Kira Cochrane revealed that in a typical month, 78% of newspaper articles are written by men, 72% of Question Time contributors are men and 84% of reporters and guests on Radio 4’s Today show are men.

Just over a week later, the Twitterati reacted positively to a Newsnight with a female presenter and all-female discussion panels. It is very rare for the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme to feature all-women panels on something other than gender issues, although I worked on an edition of Newsnight where I helped to put together an all-female panel in March on the Japanese Tsunami.

I have no idea whether the all-female edition of Newsnight was intentional or a happy accident – the all-female panel that I was involved with came together serendipitously –  but what I do know is it is often harder to find women who will be prepared to appear in a television discussion.

While working on a feature on unemployment for a regional television programme, I was encouraged to get both male and female participants. Given that many commentators have noted that the most recent downturn has had a bigger impact on women than on men, a female participant would have been highly desirable. But you know what? All the women I spoke to were really not up for it while the men hoped it would put them in the shop window.

And it’s not just me who finds this. Cochrane’s article quoted Katie Snape, a booker on Sky News, who says she often has trouble booking the number she would like:

“I always have these conversations with women where I say: ‘We’d love to have you on the panel’, and I explain why, and they laugh, and they’re very self-effacing, and they say: ‘Gosh, I’m so flattered, but I just don’t think I’d have anything to say.’ And I’ve never rung up a man who has said that.”

So why do more  women not put themselves forward? Cochrane’s article suggested that the fewer the women who appear on these programmes, the fewer the women who are prepared to come forward. She added that women are more likely to fear a drubbing than men.

The debate on the Today programme included some discussion of the dearth of female voices on the programme. Presenter Evan Davis asked whether it mattered that you could go an hour of the Today programme without hearing a female voice. Both Lorraine Heggessey and Lomax insisted it did. Heggessey argued it was important for younger women to have role models while Lomax suggested that if the programme reviewed the subjects it covered, the maybe more women would be interested in participating.

It seems from Davis’ comments that the bosses on Today are listening. I will await with interest to see what strategies they come up with to get more female voices heard on the show.

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