Call to challenge TV's 'maleness'

This Is Lancashire: Professor Mary Beard has called for a review of the position of women working across television Professor Mary Beard has called for a review of the position of women working across television

Broadcasters must address the position of women across TV, not just on panel shows, presenter Mary Beard has said.

Danny Cohen, the BBC's director of television, has vowed to end all-male panel shows, saying that the absence of female guests was "not acceptable".

Professor Beard, 59, told the Radio Times that she gave "two hearty cheers" to Cohen's promise but she added: "It's not just about panel shows."

She criticised the "niche roles for women in sitcoms" and females being placed "next to the main (male) presenter on the breakfast TV sofa".

Professor Beard said that the "underlying 'maleness' of all these shows" was "more hard-wired i n our culture than the presence of a few extra women is likely to solve".

The television classicist, who has been criticised over her appearance, added: "Already in Homer's Odyssey, almost 3,000 years ago, we find a wet-behind-the-ears teenager telling his savvy mother not to speak in public.

"Of course, the Greeks and the Romans didn't have panel shows. But the kind of male banter and repartee that we still see in these programmes - its aggression, its 'wit' - does go back thousands of years to ancient dialogue and debate."

She praised the likes of former BBC economics editor Stephanie Flanders and Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis.

But she told the magazine: "There are still relatively few and they tend to be young and conventionally pretty (their looks, perhaps, sugaring the pill of hard-core political debate).

"And there can be an outcry when women move into what are perceived as traditional male areas. Remember the abuse directed at Jacqui Oatley when she dared to 'leave the netball court' and become the first woman commentator on Match of the Day."

While quotas could "help in the short term", the presenter said that she dreaded "any idea of a fixed quota of women per programme", saying: "It's likely to leave desperate producers ringing round all the women they can possibly think of to fill 'the woman's slot'."

She said: "I don't think it would be much fun being the woman vilified in all the reviews as the one taking the quota place."

She said that the problem was deep rooted, as "most viewers accept, without a blink, the craggy, wrinkled faces and bald patches of male documentary presenters, as if they were the signs of mature wisdom, yet in the case of women presenters, grey hair and wrinkles often signal 'past-my-use-by-date' - or at least glaring eccentricity and deficient grooming."

She added: "And it's not a coincidence that even on radio, the successful women presenters tend to have unusually deep (ie male) voices."

Her comments come after veteran broadcaster David Dimbleby hit back at claims by comic Dara O Briain that Question Time needs to tackle the gender balance of its panellists, saying he had picked "the wrong target".

He defended the show's record for inviting women guests and pointed out the proportions were much higher than those for many areas of public life.

O Briain turned on BBC1's political discussion show in an interview after being asked about the recent decision to ban all-male line-ups for comedy panel shows.

"It's remarkable that this amount of time is spent debating women on comedy shows rather than, say, Question Time," he said.

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