Joan Smith: In the studio, in the House... where are all the women?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Was it a virus? Something weirdly gender-specific that incapacitated women for the duration of the election campaign? Day after day I turned on the television to find men interviewing men, men arguing with men, and men sitting on panels with men.

Not one of the big broadcasting networks – not even the publicly funded BBC – could be bothered to find a woman to moderate the historic leaders' debates. It was pretty much the same on election night. My admiration for David Dimbleby's stamina, at 71, was tempered by irritation at the bias towards male anchors and commentators.

In that sense, the networks performed even worse than the political parties, which did at least manage to ensure that a fifth of Commons' candidates were female. There will be some new female faces in the House, including Rushanara Ali for Labour in Bethnal Green and Bow, Louise Bagshawe in Corby and Priti Patel in Witham for the Tories, and Caroline Lucas for the Greens in Brighton Pavilion. But it will take 50 years, at this rate of progress, for the gender composition of the House of Commons to reflect the population as a whole.

The current level of representation isn't because we aren't interested in politics: I've known plenty of women who would like to become MPs. But for years an unacknowledged beauty contest ensured that they were selected to fight marginal seats or ones held by the opposition.

Labour's policy of all-woman shortlists has gone some way to correcting that unfairness, but as long as women are a minority in the Commons, there's little chance of breaking the male stranglehold on party leadership. While the London-based media were swooning over Nick Clegg, I was seething over the fact that all three parties were stuck in the old groove of male-dominated politics. What's modern about an election in which the two front-runners are former PR-men who went to single-sex public schools?

Equally annoying is the beauty contest among broadcasters, where a woman has to be young(ish) and very attractive to get a look-in. Emily Maitlis and Julie Etchingham fully deserved their roles in the election-night coverage, but where were all the other women? The BBC switched between Dimbleby, Jeremy Vine, Jeremy Paxman and Andrew Neil for on-the-night commentary, as though it was the natural natural order of things, while women were despatched to the counts countrywide. Age and appearance have little effect on men's careers in broadcasting, but does anyone seriously believe that Maitlis will have a major election-night role when she's in her seventies?

Of course there are female political commentators but there's a significant difference between them and their male colleagues. Men are more likely to be regarded as neutral while it's almost a requirement of the job that women who comment on politics – Polly Toynbee of The Guardian, say, or the Telegraph's Janet Daley - should be tribal in their loyalties. That significantly limits their ability to cross over into broadcasting where there's a polite pretence that presenters and anchors have no political allegiance, even if, as Sir Robin Day did, they've stood for Parliament.

In the final days of the campaign, the Lib Dems used a linguistic sleight-of-hand to play down the risk of paralysis in the event of an unclear outcome. A "hung" parliament became a "balanced" parliament. But "balanced" is not the word I'd use to to describe a legislature in which fewer than a quarter of the seats are held by women.