Sarah Sands: Women can follow Fern Britton out of the comfort zone

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Who do you think is the most popular woman on television? I was asked the question about five years ago and guessed it must be Natasha Kaplinsky (remember her?) or Davina McCall. The answer turned out to be Fern Britton. Still is. Viewers, like children, prefer women with a gigantic maternal bosom and a friendly, patient manner.

There was nothing of the diva in Fern. She sank on to the sofa each morning, leaving a crater imprint, and the temperature immediately rose. Guests longed to bury their heads into her chest. Other female television presenters looked nervy and glacial in comparison.

But last week Fern snapped. She is leaving the sofa and a £750,000 salary. According to astonished reports, she is going to reinvent herself in the lean and hungry world of current affairs.

Suddenly she was on Question Time, biffing bankers. Some critics said Fern was inadequately qualified to tackle fiscal stimulus. But there was a new fire to her as she played Mother Courage, wanting to protect her children from economic upheaval while calculating her own potential revenue streams.

Fern Britton has denied leaving her job at This Morning because she was paid less than her co-presenter Phillip Schofield. Yet she took the classic course of an aggrieved woman.

An academic who has studied women in the workplace explained to me that women find it excruciatingly hard to discuss pay because they fear it makes them less lovable. Rather than risk confrontation, they swallow their resentment. Women are far more likely simply to resign than address inequalities. The phrase: "They'll be sorry ..." is a phrase deeply embedded in the female psyche.

Whether economically or culturally, Fern Britton became tired of being taken for granted. Why should she dispense laughter and tissues for ever? She is from a family of actors and is probably more rackety and fun than she has been allowed to be. I thought that she was perfectly competent on Question Time, but she shone as a presenter for Comic Relief.

Is there something slightly sexist in the disapproval of women wishing to reinvent themselves? Last Monday, I was a guest on Radio 4's Start the Week with Piers Morgan. His latest volume of diaries has a new tone to it. There is a lot of advice for Gordon Brown and President Obama. The celebrity knockabout continues but an increasing number of protagonists are exempted. Simon Cowell is spoken of with a reverence disguised in banter. Alan Sugar bestrides the world like a colossus.

The author, who began his career squeezing himself into photographs of celebrities on The Sun show business pages, has succumbed to a natural impulse of middle age and professional advancement. He wishes to be taken seriously. Well, if Piers Morgan can advise Gordon Brown on winning the next election – advice to which the Prime Minister listens with "frenzied note taking" – then Fern Britton can chair the G20 summit, so far as I am concerned. All she is seeking is a little professional imagination.

Women have traditionally begun their careers in segregated areas. Martha Kearney was on Women's Hour for many years before she landed The World at One. Recently she wrote of a male listener encouraging her to return to knitting. I expect Fern Britton will encounter the same rebuffs.

Women are free to move from the sofa, but they will have to endure ridicule on the way. Fern Britton should just remember that Jeremy Paxman was once a breakfast television presenter too.

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