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TV & Radio

Women radio presenters under pressure 'to sound more like men', says Mary Beard


Female broadcasters have to copy the deep, “authoritative” tones of their male colleagues in order to succeed on radio, Professor Mary Beard has claimed.

Discussing the lack women in prominent roles in broadcasting, the television historian said that authority still resides “with the men in suits and their deep voices”.

“It’s not a coincidence that even on radio, the successful women presenters tend to have unusually deep (i.e. male) voices,” the Classics professor writes in Radio Times.

Popular female radio voices include Mishal Husain of the Today programme, who is nominated for Radio Presenter of the Year at this month’s Broadcasting Press Guild awards and the Radio 4 Woman’s Hour presenting duo of Jenni Murray and Jane Garvey.

Asked by The Independent if she had in mind Charlotte Green, the former Radio 4 newsreader-turned-5 Live football results announcer, Prof Beard declined to comment. Ms Green possessed the “most attractive female voice on national radio”, according to one poll.

Prof Beard told The Independent: “My sense is that lower register voices are perceived as more authoritative. Listening to Radio 4 suggests that.”

“Some of these [voices] are ‘natural’. I suspect, but don’t know, that when those voices aren’t natural, women in public positions get encouraged, as Margaret Thatcher was, to go down a register.”

However Sue MacGregor, the former Today programme presenter, said: “It helps for women who read the news to have a voice which is easy on the ear but I can’t think of any current women on the radio who have unusually deep, or ‘male’ voices.”

Ms MacGregor said she believed she had a “slightly lower pitched voice” when she began broadcasting but she was never advised to deepen her voice in order to conform to male prejudices.

She added: “On radio you can’t see faces and the voice is all the listener has to go on, so you do have to be careful not to come across as high-pitched, shrill or squeaky.”

Prof Beard argues in a new BBC4 documentary, Oh Do Shut Up Dear, that the “silence” of women in public debate can be traced right back to Homer’s Odyssey.

She said the recent pledge by Danny Cohen, BBC Director of Television, to end all-male panels on comedy shows, would have minimal impact because the “underlying ‘maleness’ of all these shows is more hard-wired in our culture.”

She writes: “The fact is that even now authority still seems to reside with the men in suits, and their deep voices; and those are the types we still assume we’ll see when we’re looking for words of wisdom on TV.”

Prof Beard, who hit back at the television critic AA Gill when he said she was too unattractive to present television programmes, said broadcasters often hire attractive female news correspondents to stop viewers switching off political stories.

She wrote: “Think of Stephanie Flanders being wonderfully persuasive on economics; or Emily Maitlis who can be as powerful as anyone on Newsnight. But there are still relatively few and they tend to be young and conventionally pretty (their looks, perhaps, sugaring the pill of hard-core political debate).”

Acknowledging the abuse her appearance has prompted, Prof Beard wrote: “You need only think of how most viewers accept, without a blink, the craggy, wrinkled faces and bald patches of male documentary presenters, as if they were the signs of mature wisdom; yet in the case of women presenters, grey hair and wrinkles often signal “past-my-use-by-date” – or at least glaring eccentricity and deficient grooming.”

Prof Beard rejected “quotas” to improve the representation of women on prominent programmes. “I dread any idea of a fixed quota of women per programme. It’s likely to leave desperate producers ringing round all the women they can possibly think of to fill ‘the woman’s slot’. I don’t think it would be much fun being the woman vilified in all the reviews as the one taking the quota place.”

She concluded that the gender gap would finally be bridged when “almost every viewer in the land would simply think that it looked very weird (and unbelievably old-fashioned) to have a panel made up of four blokes – and would switch off.”

Ms MacGregor said that Patricia Hughes, one of the first women ever to read the news on BBC Radio and who went on to voice an audiobook of Margaret Thatcher’s autobiography, was the only female broadcaster whose deep voice came close to Prof Beard’s description.