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Top Gear makes Saudis look liberal, Kirsty Wark tells Independent Bath Literature Festival

The BBC presenter was chairing a discussion about women in public life
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Women have more chance of driving a car in Saudi Arabia than they do of getting behind the wheel on Top Gear, said one of the BBC's most prominent presenters yesterday.

Kirsty Wark singled out the popular entertainment shows Top Gear, Strictly Come Dancing and Mock the Week, as well as Question Time, for their male bias and said that broadcasting still had serious issues when it came to giving women a voice.

"There are more women driving in Saudi Arabia than you will ever see on Top Gear. In fact, you actually have more chance of hosting a driving show in Saudi Arabia than you have of hosting Top Gear," said the presenter. "Five out of 38 guest panellists in the last series of Mock the Week were women," she added.

Last month, the BBC's head of programming, Danny Cohen, banned all-male line-ups on comedy panel shows. Question Time has also responded to criticisms of its male-heavy panels lately. On the current series, the proportion of female guests has been 44 per cent. The problem remains that women do not want to appear on the show, said Wark.

"Question Time has made great leaps in terms of putting more women on. But for a long time the reason they wouldn't... go on was that they felt like they could talk very passionately about a single subject, but they couldn't talk about the waterfront, they thought. Men couldn't care less – they just talk about the waterfront.

"Broadcasting has a lot of issues," added the 59-year-old journalist, citing Strictly… as another "unbelievable" example of gender bias. "What is Bruce Forsyth now – 80 odd? And his female co-presenter is in her thirties. Just imagine the reverse – it's never going to happen."

Wark was chairing a discussion about women's role in public life at The Independent Bath Literature Festival. The all-female event for International Women's Day also featured Jane Shepherdson, chief executive of Whistles, the editor-in-chief of Red magazine, Sarah Bailey, and the writer Hadley Freeman. The "hard-won battles" for equality of the 1970s were only the start of the story, said Wark, introducing the debate. "In fact, I think we're only at chapter two of the story."