Women at the Public Service Broadcasting Forum

Lis Howell reflects on gender balance at the recent Public Service Broadcasting Forum
Lis Howell
15 June 2010

It would be tempting to say the Public Service Broadcasting Forum’s symposium last Thursday was a load of bollocks. This is usually an accurate description of these sorts of events. Most panels are chaired and populated by men. They disregard or sneer at women in the q&a sessions, who start by saying “This may be a silly question but….” We live in a culture where to be a princess is better than to be a pundit.

But that attitude did not prevail at the PSBF symposium. Of course we had many men enjoying the sound of their own voices but the best bit was an unexpected contribution by ex-Government Minister for Culture Media and Sport, Tessa Jowell, followed by a response from Caroline Thompson, Chief Operating Officer of the BBC. Whilst I don’t believe either contribution was any better because it came from a female mouth, there is no doubt that both speakers seemed unusually honest.

The contributions from the floor were good too (for me in particular Sylvia Harvie of Leeds University) and free from the usual tedious female self-deprecation. In fact I must confess that I was one of the few women guilty of that, in an attempt to be humourous. It’s hard to get over years of having to be amusing in order to be heard – and how brilliant it was during the symposium that so many women spoke with complete ease. In case you think that sounds patronising, it’s an accurate reflection of my own experience at academic debates here at City University. Recently a male presenter from a leading BBC programme chaired a panel discussion in which he managed to take one question in eight from a women, and cut her off in order to précis “I think what you’re trying to say is….” No wonder we often suffer from squeaky voice and shaky confidence syndrome.

It might also be worth commenting that most of the women speakers at the PSBF symposium were older and not necessarily wage slaves or potential employees trying to impress. It all helps.

Facts are always useful – I tried to time it and found that the male panellists tended to speak for at least 10 percent longer than the women. At least one male panellist completely over-rode a female questioner (details on request) but examples of this sort of arrogance were rarer than usual. When it came to the questions and answers, as many female panellists were questioned as male panellists. And though this is impressionistic rather than forensic, I estimate that between 35 and 40 percent of questions came from women, though often the same women. Mercifully though, they weren’t as loquacious as the men. The women actually asked questions rather than becoming supernumerary panellists.

All good stuff. I know (because I banged on about it) that the organisers tried to achieve over 33 percent female panellists and nearly made it. With so many good women in the audience I’m not sure why they failed. It’s worth asking the question on a more general level because at least the PSBF got further than most. With regard to conferences generally, the answer is that none of can help our backgrounds and these things are usually organised by men in their fifties and sixties. Many were unexposed to female intelligence from their peers until their characters were formed. They may try ever so hard to compensate, but deep down, there’s a distrust of female intellect. Unless of course it’s young and beautifully packaged, allowing men the superiority of judging and mentoring.

And there’s another crucial factor too. Women themselves frequently decline to put their heads above the parapet. Understandable, I would say, as someone who has been shot down on many occasions.

But this conference really was better than most. Why? Perhaps because the organisers were tasked with trying. And they were also aware of the irony of a public service debate which ignored 52 percent of the population. If public service is about making sure that those underserved by the market get heard, this was at least an attempt to give female pundits a chance in our princess or nothing culture. So we girls should be grateful to the princes of the PSBF. And if they think that appellation is inappropriate – well, now they know how we feel!

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