BBC subjects older female radio presenters to ageism and sexism, leading broadcaster says

‘Does the BBC have a problem with older women? Are we written off as old trouts while men become revered elders, sacred patriarchs, silver foxes?’ asks presenter

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Tuesday 22 September 2020 17:00 BST
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The 70-year-old argued the appearances of radio presenters used to be deemed irrelevant unless their voice 'actually quavered' or their views and language characterised them as being 'an old buffer'
The 70-year-old argued the appearances of radio presenters used to be deemed irrelevant unless their voice 'actually quavered' or their views and language characterised them as being 'an old buffer'

The BBC subjects older female radio presenters to ageism and sexism, a leading broadcaster has said.

Libby Purves, who presented Radio 4’s Midweek from the 1980’s until it was stopped in 2017, said there are double standards for male and female presenters - with the latter more likely to be judged by their looks.

The 70-year-old argued the appearances of radio presenters used to be deemed irrelevant unless their voice “actually quavered” or their views and language characterised them as being “an old buffer”.

Penning an opinion piece for the Radio Times, Ms Purves said female presenters often find it difficult to have as lengthy careers as their male counterparts.

She said: “Sue Barker has been binned from A Question of Sport after 23 years. She is 64. More willingly, Jenni Murray and Jane Garvey depart from Woman’s Hour, aged 70 and 56. They are replaced by Emma Barnett, a mere 35.

“What is this? Does the BBC have a problem with older women? Are we written off as old trouts while men become revered elders, sacred patriarchs, silver foxes?”

There will only be true equality when “women are allowed to be grey, stout and in proper cardigans”, the presenter added.

She said: “On TV it has always mattered, and annoyed older women. It’s a visual medium, far more tolerant of verbal mediocrity than radio, and frankly, all sexes enjoy looking at prettiness, slenderness, abundant blonde hair and a good leg.

“Observe that of the over-50 women above, most look far younger. And they work on it. The men don’t have to.”

Ms Purves argued that in radio age “never used to matter a jot” - adding that presenters “resisted the visual and grumped at photographers”.

She added: “When they put a webcam in her studio, Jenni Murray famously draped a pashmina over it.

“When radio presenters met people, we were usually told ‘I’d imagined you taller – and thinner’. But the coming of websites, social media and photos larded all over the BBC Sounds app is making radio seek an image more visual, thus ageist.”

A BBC spokesperson told The Independent they choose presenters on the basis of who best suits their audiences.

"We are proud to have a diverse range of women presenters across TV and Radio - from Mary Berry to Martha Kearney, Carol Klein to Andrea Oliver and Mary Beard to Kirsty Wark," they added. "We would like to thank Sue’s longest-reigning contribution as the show’s longest reigning host over the last 24 years, and Matt and Phil for their excellent team captaincy over 16 and 12 years respectively. Together they have ensured A Question of Sport remains a firm favourite with the BBC One audience."

Recent figures show older women are bearing the brunt of the recession unleashed by the coronavirus crisis.

Data published by the Office of National Statistics last week shows 79,000 fewer women over 65 were in work between May to July than were in the previous quarter – starkly higher than the 13,000 fewer men of the same age in employment during this period.

Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson, director of Women’s Budget Group, told The Independent the new figures show the litany of difficulties faced by older women in the workplace.

She said: “Women in the 65 plus group age group are particularly likely to be caring for even older relatives who are in their eighties. One of the impacts of coronavirus is the crisis in care services. Older women whose relatives may have had carers come into their house may now have to be providing care themselves in the wake of social distancing measures. Caring responsibilities could have pushed them out of the workplace.

“The job losses could also be the result of discrimination against older women from employers. The combination of ageism and sexism is a big problem. This is also the group of women who have had their state pension age risen so could be more in need of their work than ever. It is a triple whammy: state pension age rise, ageism and sexism, and caring responsibilities.”

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