Girls, are you sure you want this promotion?

Newspapers and TV have never been so rapacious in their demands for female writers and pundits. But is this doing any favours to the women involved?
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When, in the mid-1990s, I first worked for The Sunday Telegraph, there was a story in one of the newspapers about a male hospital patient who had been sued for pinching a nurse's bottom. This gave the then deputy editor an idea. "Let's see what happens when the boot is on the other foot," he announced. It soon became clear that the part of the boot was to be played by myself. I was instructed to go to the Reform Club in Pall Mall, obscure myself behind one of its pillars and pinch the members' bottoms as they emerged from the club.

When, in the mid-1990s, I first worked for The Sunday Telegraph, there was a story in one of the newspapers about a male hospital patient who had been sued for pinching a nurse's bottom. This gave the then deputy editor an idea. "Let's see what happens when the boot is on the other foot," he announced. It soon became clear that the part of the boot was to be played by myself. I was instructed to go to the Reform Club in Pall Mall, obscure myself behind one of its pillars and pinch the members' bottoms as they emerged from the club.

A photographer was on hand to make a pictorial record of my efforts. The results, featuring wide-angled shots of my legs as they hurried after scuttling middle-aged gentlemen, appeared on page three. The postbag that week was large. The editor was delighted. The reaction of other members of the journalistic profession was more muted. Auberon Waugh's verdict was, according to a friend, "disgusting". He told a mutual acquaintance that the story had demeaned both the newspaper and myself. The following week I was further demeaned. I was promoted.

If Helen of Troy's face launched a thousand ships, my career could be said to have been launched off a hundred bottoms. The story is a cautionary one. The surest way, these days, of starting a career in journalism is to make sure you are born a woman, particularly a presentable one. (I make no claims here, though, for myself.) Kaiser Wilhelm II suffered from an "encirclement complex" - the fear of being hemmed in by his enemies. A male colleague of mine joked that he suffered from what might be called a "Tootsie complex" - the fear that the only way his career would prosper might be via a sex change.

So wherein lies the caution? Beneficiaries of the fashion for women journalists will indeed enjoy a career. This is no guarantee, however, that it will be a satisfactory and fulfilling one. Early dreams of becoming a Clare Hollingsworth or a Rebecca West are for many female journalists unrealised simply because their physical appearance deems them, in the eyes of editors, better suited to other tasks. Being a certain sort of female journalist can be a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it undoubtedly opens doors; a curse because the doors frequently open on to a cul-de-sac.

There has never been such a demand from the rapacious media maw for women. This is partly because there are more newspaper columns to fill and more television programmes requiring presenters and pundits. Another, equally important reason is that newspaper editors and programmers are continually instructed by management and marketing magnificoes to pursue female readers. Women enjoy increasing spending power, and this makes them a rich target for newspaper advertising. It is assumed, unimaginatively and sometimes erroneously, that the way to hold the attention of women readers is to employ women writers. I say erroneously because, as we know, a female prime minister encountered more hostility from her own sex than from the opposite one.

The promotion of green young women to political jobs suits everyone for a time. It suits their editor because it illumines (aesthetically) his or her comment pages and prevents the paper from seeming old-fashioned or chauvinistic, two of the greatest sins in contemporary journalism. It generates publicity because editors are aware of the eagerness of television producers to use female pundits, especially attractive ones, on late-night programmes. I once heard a producer remark: "Fetch me a blonde, but make sure she's right-wing." Then, "No, better have a brunette. Blondes tend to be too caring."

But it is undoubtedly true that some women, delighted at their quick promotion, are soon left floundering. The bylines on female columns come and go more quickly than those on men's.

This is not to say that women are incapable of "serious" political writing. On the contrary. Melanie Phillips of The Sunday Times is an example of the eloquent focus of the educated female mind, though one sometimes suspects she feels that she must be duller than necessary in order to convince editors and readers of her seriousness. Polly Toynbee, though in my view wrong-headed on almost every issue, has none the less cultivated a lively and effectively discursive style - unlike others of her sex, who are prone to a sort of dire earnestness. But that too many mediocre women are rewarded with columns, while most men must still earn them over the years, is indubitable.

This discrimination in favour of females (both writers and readers) has led to the birth of the irritating "lifestyle" column that is a hybrid of the diary and the conventional opinion article. Most Sunday newspapers now feel obliged to carry one, alongside a large photograph of the authoress sporting backcombed hair that resembles a souffle. Her brief appears to be to describe the domestic and sexual events of her week in as much boring minutiae as possible. Men have recently joined this well-paid act, feeling obliged, perhaps because of their insurmountable gender disadvantages, to write in even duller detail.

These columns eventually run their course and the woman begins her mournful and enviable journey from one newspaper to another, finally alighting on the pages of the Mail on Sunday's You magazine, writing columns with such titles as "Me and My Weekend". She may, on the other hand, retain her column for some years because the editor regards her as he or she might regard an expensive racehorse just purchased. To sack or demote the columnist would reflect badly on the original judgement and wound the editor's executive pride.

Of course, it is possible to be both a very serious woman journalist and an attractive one, but even now few people are prepared to believe in the possibility. One male media mogul advised me never to wear lipstick as it would only lead editors to think of sex. Absurd as this remark may appear, while most newspaper editors remain male it has a grim truth to it. The well-groomed and intelligent female will often be labelled a token woman columnist or will have to live with the knowledge that her detractors are saying she is there as a result of her aesthetic value - or worse. This is a difficult tightrope to walk. One of the few women to have done it successfully is Minette Marrin, who writes a column in The Sunday Telegraph.

There are, of course, allegedly serious women who are both plain and very dull writers. They interpret post-feminism as a negation of basic good humour. Jokes are anathema to them. These women give you page fright. They are paraded in newspapers and on late-night television, talking incessantly, and often incoherently, about non-existent "issues".

It seems to me that most female columns are becoming duller. It is partly the fault of editors. Editors of both sexes seem to want columnists to share the same views, or a consensus, as a genuflection to the alleged cultural and political uniformity of modern Britain.

Originality can alarm editors as much as strong ideology. You might argue, but what of such so-called "controversial" columnists as Julie Burchill? Burchill was successful not so much because of any strong ideology but because of the scatological language in which her opinions were couched. Many women columnists, particularly in the tabloids, seem to believe that a four-letter word is a substitute for a thought.

Discrimination in favour of women, while it undoubtedly exists, does not necessarily help them in the long term. In one sense it is better to go about it in the old- fashioned way and wait longer for your favoured job than to acquire it before you are ready (which happens to half of all female journalists), or never acquire it at all (which happens to the other half). The lesson for young women journalists is to write on subjects about which they have real knowledge, rather than be driven along by editors pursuing their own cynical agendas.

Petronella Wyatt is deputy editor of 'The Spectator'. This piece is extracted from 'Secrets of the Press', edited by Stephen Glover. Her new book is 'Father, Dear Father', published by Hutchinson on 21 October

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