The campaign around Sound Women was never mentioned in the last part of this short series on Radio 4, but the stories within it exemplified why their work is so important.


WHO   Jane Garvey

WHAT   Getting on Air: The Female Pioneers (Part 5: A Level Playing Field), BBC Radio 4

WHEN   Friday 1 November 1345

Listened In is 2ZY’s weekly air-check blog. Every week we listen to a random twenty minute sample of a station or programme in the news.

“I’ll be finding out why there is still a strong bias towards the male voice when TV and radio programmes feature the opinions of experts,” promises the always-brilliant Jane Garvey at the top of this self-reflective programme. That’s a big ask.

The opening case study featured Jacqui Oatley, who in 2007 became the first female commentator on Match of the Day. “I woke up as I always did with my radio alarm with 5 live news on, and the first thing I heard was a debate about whether I should be allowed to do this.” She went on to describe newspaper coverage of her forthcoming gig, in which manager Dave Bassett said “she’s never kicked a ball in her life .. and everyone in football is against it.” Jacqui actually has a coaching qualification. And at that point no-one in football actually knew about it.

“Dealing with outright sexism and media intrusion were just part of what Jacqui had to put up with … she also had death threats and got abusive letters telling her to get out of football,” Jane tells us. She goes on to mention the similar experience of historian Mary Beard who had to endure similar hostility, “with criticism of their looks, on social media, comments that they’re too old to be on television. Threats, incredibly, that they’ll be raped.”

Historian Bettany Hughes says “it’s almost a good thing that this has happened because that kind of fermenting murk of anger about women is so close to the surface .. the fact that this stuff has been shared on Twitter has lanced the boil.” She also calls up Helen of Troy, Catherine the Great and Cleopatra as historical evidence of this cultural sexism. “When they have influence, they’re always sexualised … history just could not cope with the idea of a strong, powerful, brave, brainy woman. They had to sexualise her … and that still happens. You have Mary Beard as an expert talking about ancient Rome and the Twittersphere is full of sexual insults and sexual threats.”

Next up is Liz Howell from City University, and her Expert Women campaign that aims to get a better gender balance in programme contributors. It’s after her research showed men outnumbered women, six to one. There’s also a great clip of BBC historian Professor Jean Seaton. “There was a moment during the 2010 election when I threw my shoe at the Today Programme on Saturday morning because it had seven men about politics in a row .. I felt so excluded from the political voice. But then Radio 4 did listen and .. by taking a policy and by calling on a large number of female experts, and training them, now you do get a feminisation of expertise.” Liz Howell says women need to step up. “Outing the trolls, explaining what a hard time you have, not putting up with the banter, not pretending it’s all been a piece of cake … but it’s been worth it.”

Jane sums up the five-part series, with reference to the Hall plan for BBC Local Radio breakfasts, and a great montage including Annie Nightingale (“You do the job because you’re good at it or people who like what you do. It should not depend on some kind of gender quota”), Angela Rippon (“They ought to be out there looking for them, frankly they need a kick up the rear to go out and find them and put them on air, but only put them on the air if they can do the job.”) and Esther Rantzen “We need more (expert women) so that the men made nervous by clever women can get used to it!”


This was a sensible, straightforward, important series. I’m not sure we ever discovered why there is still a bias against women as expert voices on the air, just more evidence that there is one.

But to hear Jacqui Oatley’s testimony from just six years ago, shows how things can change. Already, the way she was treated sounds hopelessly outdated (and a radio debate about whether she can do the job, trite and trolling.) Which means things are already, thankfully, changing for the better.

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