Menu Close

BBC: yet another male boss – public broadcaster needs to pay more than lip service to promoting women

BBC employees outside Broadcasting House in London, highlighting equal pay on International Women’s Day. 2018. John Stillwell/PA Archive/PA Images

Tim Davie is the 17th male BBC boss since 1927. It would be a mistake to appoint a female director general simply as “Mrs Buggin’s turn”, regardless of her suitability for the role. So the issue isn’t about him – rather the shortlist for his job, which is widely reported as consisting of three men and one woman.

The BBC headhunters probably searched like crazy for another women, because three to one is a bad look. But many women must have thought that their chances of being appointed were slim. The BBC executive consists of 18 people – ten men and eight women. This sounds great, but numbers aren’t everything – most people can see at a glance that the men have the meatier roles. The same is even more true of the BBC board.

In fairness to the BBC, this is not unusual at the top of large organisations. The BBC may be better than most – but even so, perhaps it’s no wonder that many of the women approached reportedly refused to compete. The survey research we have done on the expert women project, which I direct at City, University of London, shows that many women at all levels suspect the dice are loaded against them. They often refuse to participate, earning the reputation of either playing “hard to get” or of being scared to put their heads above the parapet.

Where are the women?

Interestingly, at the time this selection was going on, the representation of women on UK “flagship” news reached a new low for recent years. In March 2020 nearly three times as many expert men as expert women – a ratio of 2.7 to one – appeared on “flagship” UK news programmes, in the week monitored by postgraduates in the journalism department at City, University of London.

This was a rise of over 40% on another week the students monitored in February, where the ratio overall was 1.9 to one – a figure more in line with the levels of expertise in UK society. Further analysis showed that in March, male “politicos” (politicians and government advisers) on air outnumbered female “politicos” by five to one.

The BBC selection process for director general should be viewed against this backdrop. A cursory reading of the press stories about women declining to “put their hat in the ring” suggests that more women than men declined. But don’t blame the women – what are the real chances of a woman being appointed as DG, in a country with a government which has a ratio of about four males to one woman in the senior cabinet and finds that representative enough?

Of course, headhunters love getting women on shortlists generally. They want to pay lip-service to equality. But equal numbers do not mean equal opportunities to get the job. Please don’t sympathise with the BBC and its headhunters because so many women said no. Instead, ask why they did.

Gender imbalance

Tim Davie was a successful acting director general in 2013. That was the year when the BBC Academy started its expert women days, in response to City University and Broadcast magazine’s expert women campaign.

The BBC expert women days recruited women with expertise for media training and confidence building. This initiative alone significantly improved the number of women experts on air, at a time when you would often hear six times as many men as women on some news programmes.

The BBC was overwhelmed with thousands of applicants for the expert women days. Tim Davie said in 2013:

The first expert women day was such a big success and the response so overwhelmingly positive that we didn’t want to wait before setting up more sessions.

I’ve heard recently that the BBC Academy now plans to quietly ditch the expert women days despite protest by many of its participants. The BBC seems to feel it has done enough to get women experts on air – even though the Today programme in the 7am to 8am slot, in the week monitored in March, had 22 male experts to two women experts interviewed.

It has been widely reported that one of Davie’s first jobs will be tackling the gender pay gap, which tends to focus attention on high-end “talent”. But fairness for all women, down to the interviewees on the news, should be a major remit. The expert women days could be a big part of this. Reinstating them would be a simple, cost effective move which would genuinely make a difference, and perhaps give the future first female DG her start.

And perhaps it might also show that, despite the disproportionate shortlist, and the disappointment of so many people who wanted to see a woman in the role, Davie might be the right person for the job of director general. For now.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 179,100 academics and researchers from 4,897 institutions.

Register now