A reasonable amount of media attention was given to the fact that by the semi final stage of last year’s University Challenge, the remaining teams were exclusively male. But why was this? And why, as someone who is so pro equal opportunities and women in science would I not want to change this?
The reasons for the lack of women competing aren’t straight forward, From my experience I don’t believe that there is any bias in the selection process of the universities themselves. I felt that Reading were pretty thorough; we have a written test and then the top 10 from that go through to a buzzer round in front of an audience to ensure that you have the speed and ability to cope on camera. The final team were then chosen by a panel. Other teams seem to have had a similar experience.
Nor, if the producers are honest, is there any real bias in the show’s selection procedure either. It’s true that there may be some fiddling to make sure there is some geographical and diverse representation, and preferences for universities who haven’t been on for a while/ at all but the producers make it very clear that it is still very much based on your score in their test quiz: if you’re not good enough you’re not in. So I suspect there may, for example, be a little bit of juggling of the teams ranked 20-30 but the top 20 will definitely be in and anyone below the top 30 definitely won’t, or something similar to that. But essentially you have to be good, and that’s the real deciding factor.
There’s no reason why there should be fewer women making it through these various stages than men. I’m not aware of any evidence that men are naturally better at quizzing and anyone who saw Gail Trimble in action will probably be of an opinion that they are not (not that men aren’t good of course, who could forget Ted Loveday and Hapax Legomenon). So it seems that women just aren’t applying, and much as things could be done to change this, the way things currently are I’m not sure I would encourage this.
My reasoning for this is not only the comments that contestants are likely to see on social media, which have been well documented, but also because of the quiz master and Newsnight legend, Mr Nasty, Jeremy Paxman himself. But not for the reason you might think. In fact it could be suggested that Jeremy is supportive of there being more women on the show. Several media outlets reported on his comments at the semi-final stage of last year’s series: “why on earth are there no women left in this stage of the competition?”. Many even lauded him as some kind of feminist.
However, I have to say that from my experience this couldn’t be further from the truth. Jeremy Paxman is not a feminist. In fact his ideas of what it is appropriate to say to female contestants are definitely not in line with BBC or ITV policy to say the least.
Not only are his attitudes to women in the workplace outdated, they do not help to make it a positive experience for the women participating in the show. For University Challenge is a workplace. Contestants essentially have to sign something that at least is very close to an employment contract before they are allowed to appear on the show, yet for some reason Paxman is allowed to behave in way towards female contestants that would in no way be considered appropriate in any other workplace. I can’t even imagine a male member of staff at my university being allowed to make comments to the female PhDs and everyone just laughing it off or ignoring it. More to the point I can’t even imagine that any of them would even want to do this either!
Yet Jeremy is allowed to make comments to female contestants in the studio, in front of the cameras and the audience, and no-one in the production team even bats an eyelid. As contestants we were expected to sit there politely and carry on smiling both because this is what we have agreed to do, and through fear of them not broadcasting our match that we have worked so hard to qualify for if we did kick up a fuss. Every year over 100 teams don’t make it through to the TV round so it’s not like there aren’t plenty of replacements. Given that my team had a member who was originally a reserve for his college back in the days of Bamber Gascoigne there was no way I was going to mess up his chance to finally be on the show after such a long wait by giving Paxman the response to his comment to me that he definitely deserved. I think it is this acceptance of Paxman that is much more dangerous than the man himself and the reason I chose to write this. So here’s the key starter for 10: we can all ignore someone with outdated views but is this ok just because they’re famous and from a generation where this behaviour would have been acceptable?
I should make it clear here that I’m not trying to claim that had we had a different quiz master we would have beaten Imperial, they were excellent and I wouldn’t want to take anything away from that. Although I think we had a strong team it’s quite sad that actually we were all pretty relieved when the final scores came in and we found out we didn’t have to go back as a highest scoring loser (this isn’t really a spoiler as Paxman said goodbye to us on the show!).
I do feel it was a privilege and a great experience to have been able to take part in a legendary show and I wouldn’t want to put off any women from applying- they just need to be aware of what they may have to put up with. It made me really sad to write this and to think of the blip on an otherwise awesome experience. But until there is a different quiz master I certainly wouldn’t push to get more women on the show knowing what the producers think is acceptable for them to deal with. There is also no support or warning given by ITV about what contestants are likely to see on social media. It can get pretty horrible and I think at least a warning just to not look is the minimum that they should be doing. I hope that those that do go through in 2016 can go into it with their eyes wide open and not be put off by any comments that they’re expected to just deal with. And that’s without even starting on what Twitter thinks it’s appropriate to say…