Joan Smith: A woman's place is off the pitch, is it?

The insidious bit excuses the 'experts' and places the blame firmly on the public
  • @polblonde

Imagine the scene at the BBC. There they are, busily collecting nominations from sports editors for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, when someone notices that most of the names belong to men. I mean, how on earth did that happen? Especially after they went out of their way to create a "level playing field" – I think that's the requisite cliché – by seeking nominations from such admirably gender-neutral publications as Nuts and Zoo. Sick as parrots all round!

As I'm sure you know by now, this year's 10-man shortlist is exactly that: no Rebecca Adlington, no Jessica Ennis and no Jill Scott (plays football for England, in case you didn't know). And someone said, as someone was bound to do, that "you shouldn't include a woman just for the sake of it", as though there are so few women involved in sport at the top level that they couldn't possibly get on the shortlist on merit.

The thing about most lists, whether they are of sports stars, chefs or public intellectuals, is that they're more likely than not to display a (mostly) unconscious male bias. What comes next is a series of rationalisations as the people responsible try to argue themselves out of a hole, claiming that it's not their fault – they just canvassed "expert" opinion – and that, anyway, women simply haven't got to the same level as men.

This is usually "bollocks", to use a technical term, but it chimes with the prejudices that excluded half the population in the first place. For all the sour claims that women run everything these days – enough to get you a documentary slot on TV if not a mini-series on Radio 4 – it's still the case in most professions that men confer authority on other men. It's not so much a matter of disliking women (though some do) as the simple fact of not seeing us in the same way. Andy Murray is always more likely to get on a list of top sports people than Rebecca Adlington.

Now we come to the really insidious bit, which excuses the professional commentators and places the blame firmly on the public. Sorry, guv, the argument runs, but your average viewer isn't interested in women's sport, and it won't get anything like the same coverage unless and until that changes. Of course, this sidesteps the question of who makes the decisions that shape public taste in the first place; it's pretty obvious that people can't watch sports that aren't shown on television, no matter how interesting they might find them.

This year's Sports Personality of the Year shortlist includes three golfers. If it was up to the lads at Zoo, it would also feature a snooker player. That's all you need to know about the assumptions of the people who helped compile it, and I have a timely piece of advice for the BBC. Next year, ask Vogue.