We don't want to be used as your ‘token woman’

Panel shows rarely include enough women. The number of female contributors on the Today programme has risen to 24%. Shouldn't it be more like, say, 50%?

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Last month, I was thumbing idly through my SMS inbox, when I noticed something worrying: women were vastly underrepresented within my message threads. And not just a little; ‘SMS’ might as well have stood for ‘SAUSAGEFEST MAN SHENANIGANS”. How had I, a self-identifying feminist, allowed this to happen right under my nose?

I can’t really blame myself, though. After all, it’s indicative of a wider trend; one which people in far greater positions of editorial power than I over my inbox fall prey to. According to ongoing Guardian research, fewer than one in five people who appear on Radio 4’s Today programme are women – something which new BBC director general George Entwhistle vowed last month to try and change.

Last week was the first full week since Entwhistle’s comments, and there are initial signs that Today’s producers have taken his remarks on board, with the proportion of female contributors rising to an average of 24%. So, a rise from one in five to one in four – but still a long way off from the one in two that you might statistically expect. The numbers also disregard the regular Today presenters, of whom only one out of five – Sarah Montague – is a woman.

As Radio 4’s flagship current affairs programme, Today perhaps gets shorter shrift than many of its contemporaries. The truth is, of course, that women are underrepresented across the board. Panel shows such as QI and Mock the Week have also come under particular fire in the past for their androcentricity, with fewer than 1 in 10 panellists being women. It seems there is still a pervasive attitude that women cannot hold their own is these types of arena: aren’t funny enough for panel shows, aren’t clever enough for politics, aren’t dedicated enough to succeed at the highest levels of business.

Indeed, attempts to include more women in media can often smack of tokenism; something which could easily be avoided if programmes aimed for 50/50 representation, rather than acting as though women are a seldom-glimpsed minority (on the contrary, we actually make up more than half of the population). It’s actually not as impossible as it sounds – I put on monthly comedy nights, and am currently averaging a 40:60 ratio of women to men. That rises to around 50:50, if you count the fact that I compère the evening.

Indeed, the tendency to tokenistically include one female representative can contribute even more to the continued exclusion of women, in a kind of self-perpetuating cycle. Columnists such as Caitlin Moran and Grace Dent – arguably two of the funniest and fiercest women currently working in the media – have spoken in the past about their unwillingness to agree to appear on panel shows. Caitlin Moran explained her reasons for turning down an invitation to Have I Got News For You:

“Because she knows she will be on as the token female guest, that she will rarely be allowed to speak – it will be edited out before screening in order to “save her from herself”, with the result that the only clips of her actually shown would be her politely tittering at a man’s jokes. The implication, said Moran, is that women don’t get politics and can’t understand political humour. So she doesn’t bother anymore. [Grace] Dent agreed.”

This tokenistic approach means that women who do agree to appear are likely to be sidelined, ignored, and edited into the peripheries. Equally problematically, there are clear issues around playing the role of that ‘token woman’ which make it less likely for women to want to take part in the first place. The Token is seen to speak on behalf of their entire gender, rather than speaking (as we all can only do) for themselves. One misstep, you feel -one poorly-timed joke, one under-informed opinion – and suddenly, the audience watching will decide that “women aren’t funny” or “women aren’t logical” or “women are over-emotional”, or any of those other massive generalisations that get trotted out at the drop of a hat. When we do step into the melee, the response is often a Cameronesque “calm down dear”.

Under that type of pressure, expected to somehow prove the worth of your whole gender, it’s little wonder that women – funny, intelligent, brilliant women - aren’t exactly leaping at the opportunity. Whereas a man’s public failings or achievements are seen as belonging to him personally, a woman’s are taken as inherent gender traits. No matter what we are - no matter our job role or interests - we are always seen as a woman before we are seen as anything else. That will only begin to change when representation becomes high enough to illustrate that ‘women’ are more than just that.

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