Sexism in the media

28 Mar

Rosamund Urwin, Evening Standard Journalist

KIRSTY Wark, Martha Kearney, Mariella Frostrup: there are many brilliant female broadcasters and writers working in Britain today. An advantage of the media industry is that complete male domination – at least in the public-facing roles – is easy to spot. If there are no female voices on the radio, female faces on TV or female names above articles, somebody notices.

But tally up those names, count the voices, add up the faces and you see something: how under-represented women are in high profile roles. And in the best gigs, you might find evidence of “tokenism”: a one-woman-but-no-more policy. Take the Today programme, the Radio 4 show which acts as an alarm clock to a large part of the nation: there is just one female presenter (the wonderful Sarah Montague) to four men.

Last year, at an event celebrating women in the arts, a well-known critic complained that she was tired of being the only woman on discussion panels. On a weekly arts show, which had four guests, another woman kept her seat warm when she wasn’t there, but they were the only females ever allowed on the sofa.

When a second does slip through, there is often an assumption that the two women must be feuding – the more established one taking against this invader. So when Emily Maitlis joined Newsnight, the thinking went that Kirsty Wark must be fuming. A view which Wark dismissed as “hilarious”. As she told an interviewer: “You could have Jeremy [Paxman] and Gavin [Esler] existing side by side, but somehow not two women? That was a very sexist attitude, and it was absolute nonsense.”

Older women suffer discrimination in the media most, of couse. This week, Miriam O’Reilly won her case for ageism against the BBC – proving that even an organisation obsessed with “diversity” is guilty of booting women out, Logan’s Run style, when they approach the big 5-0. O’Reilly was not only subject to ageism though, but sexism too. For while their female contemporaries are kicked off our screens as their hair turns grey, men are elevated to the status of “national treasures”. Think Radio 4’s John Humphrys, Strictly Come Dancing’s Bruce Forsyth, John Simpson and Jon Snow.

I suspect a few, very pretty young women get an easier ride than the boys at the start of their careers, especially in television. Though none would ever get there without talent, they are promoted to be the attractive face next to the more “serious” older men: Cheryl Cole and Dannii Minogue on the X Factor and the way Alesha Dixon replaced the far more knowledgeable Arlene Phillips (then 66) as the lone woman on Strictly Come Dancing.

A seasoned (male) journalist recently joked that I – at 26 – had only four years left in which to make a name in television. So far, in three years of journalism, I have encountered sexism in only one way – and that was from people commenting on articles, not from anyone working in the industry. But, as one of my worldly-wise female colleagues recently warned: “That may only be a matter of time.”

Rosamund Urwin is a More Women More Power Women’s Rights Champion. Rosamund has been billed as a woman to watch and was listed by Red magazine as one of 20 Red Hot Women under 30 and is leading the way with her weekly column where she stands up for women’s rights and feminist values.


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