Women in news and current affairs broadcasting - Communications Committee Contents


Representation of female experts

132.  The lack of consistent and specific terminology used by the industry makes understanding the data on the gender balance of experts difficult. Words such as expert, contributor and guest are often used interchangeably. None of the broadcasters provided their definitions of these terms in their written evidence. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "expert" as "One whose special knowledge or skill causes him to be regarded as an authority; a specialist."[203] Women in Journalism defined expert as "anyone speaking/mentioned in their professional capacity, i.e., politicians, sports pundits, health professionals, business executives, and so on."[204]

133.  The main external source of data on this topic is a study carried out by City University. This is an ongoing study which monitors the same programmes for the same week every month.[205] The definition they used was "any interviewee used for her or his knowledge, expertise or achievement … we don't class case study or vox pop contributors as experts."[206]

134.  The first set of data from City University's study was published in 2012. It led to several broadcasters signing a pledge to improve their ratio from nearly 5:1 to 3:1. Those signed up to the pledge included Channel 4 and Sky News.[207] The latest data from this study, published in 2014, found that across flagship news programmes[208] male experts outnumbered female experts by 4:1. These data were gathered from a period covering January and February 2014.

135.  However, these data contrasted with the more encouraging figures provided by the broadcasters. ITV told us that on ITV National News, for the period most recently measured (which they did not specify), 41 per cent of contributors to news stories were female. On ITV's current affairs programmes, guests, contributors and experts over the past year were 48 per cent female and 52 per cent male.[209] It was unable to provide figures for the regions as it was in the process of implementing a new standardised monitoring system across the regions in order to increase the number of female contributors.[210]

136.  Channel 5 did not make a distinction between "expert" and "contributor". It stated that over a three month period, 42 per cent of the main contributors to 5 News were women and that, in the period cited, there were an equal number of panellists on its flagship current affairs show, The Wright Stuff.[211]

137.  The BBC did not provide us with any data on female experts. City University's study showed the male to female ratio of experts on BBC News at Ten was almost 5:1 and on the Today programme, almost 4:1.[212]

138.  The problem of definition was compounded by the use of different reporting periods, which rendered meaningful analysis and comparisons difficult. Channel 4 stated that for the months of June, July and August 2014 its news programme had an expert contributor ratio of 2:1.[213] However the academic data from City University for January and February of the same year found the ratio was 5:1.[214]

139.  A similar study by Women in Journalism was conducted into the print media.[215] The study analysed the front pages of the major national daily newspapers. It discovered that out of the sample of women, "some 61 per cent of them were mentioned or quoted in their capacity as 'experts'" and "corresponding figures for men were: 82 per cent, 'experts'."[216]

140.  As we discuss in more detail in Chapter 5, it is our view that standardised monitoring and reporting is urgently needed.

Why is this a potential problem?

141.  As we indicated in Chapter 1, paragraph 27, we received a considerable amount of evidence about the negative consequences of an unequal gender representation in news and current affairs. Several respondents pointed to the role news and current affairs plays in providing role models for society. Astute Radio emphasised the importance of female experts in this connection, writing that, "Authority figures are role models and it is imperative to give confidence and inspiration for girls who may want to become experts in particular fields … many experts … were influenced to enter their field of expertise because of role models they encountered during their lives, including on television and radio."[217]

142.  As expressed in Chapter 1, paragraph 26, a majority of witnesses agreed that news and current affairs had a particular responsibility to reflect society and that the BBC had a greater responsibility in this area than the other broadcasters, because of its funding structure.

A lack of female experts in society?

143.  A number of witnesses told us that there could only be a roughly equal number of female and male experts appearing on television and the radio if there was a roughly equal number of male and female experts in society.[218] Fran Unsworth explained, "some of the people you will be putting on air are self-selecting. There is not much you can do about the fact that the Governor of the Bank of England is a man or the Prime Minister."[219]

144.  The overriding view from the broadcasters was that an "underrepresentation of women in British public life" prevented them from a better representation of women in broadcasting.[220] There was consensus among the broadcasters who appeared as witnesses that there was a "supply problem."[221]

145.  Sky provided a case study from Budget Day 2014 when they had almost a 50-50 split between male and female contributors. It said it had achieved this by, "going beyond Westminster to small businesses, to families, to areas where we are more likely to find female guests and experts."[222] However, it said that this had proved to be "very challenging".[223]

146.  Research conducted by City University found that two agencies providing expert witnesses for courts reported a 70/30 per cent male to female ratio.[224] This suggests that the disparity in the use of experts in news and current affairs is larger than in some other industries in which experts are used.

147.  We received evidence that women are underrepresented in several areas of professional society including business and aviation,[225] which meant that it was less likely that there were female experts on these subjects. This was borne out by a BBC Trust review published in 2011[226] which found that only 17 per cent of science contributors to news were female.

148.  Other witnesses rejected the idea that there was a lack of female experts. Professor Ross, said that there were many available female experts, but "the problem is getting them on air".[227] Creative Skillset pointed out that "it is the barriers to entry and progression that are problematic in achieving diversity and inclusion in broadcasting, rather than the lack of talent."[228]

149.  We examine possible reasons for this difficulty below.

Barriers to equality of representation?

150.  Professor Ross said that there was a tendency for those in decision-making roles tend to appoint people similar to themselves. The impact of this was that journalists tended to rely on a narrow range of sources, "most of whom are white, middle-class and middle-aged professional males".[229]

151.  Broadcasters claimed that the companies or organisations had to accept some responsibility for the gender imbalance amongst experts. ITV told us that:

    "When offering a speaker for interview, companies are most likely to suggest their most senior member of staff, who is often a man. Indeed, it is often policy to allow only their most senior staff to speak on camera … We find we have to proactively seek women experts."[230]

152.  Witnesses also pointed to the nature of news broadcasting as a possible reason for the inequality. In her evidence Professor Ross suggested that one of the issues was the fast-paced nature of a news environment, which meant that it was easier for producers to contact tried and trusted experts that they knew would be reliable.[231] ITN shared this view saying that, "There is often very little time in newsrooms to spend time discussing who our best contributors are."[232] Fran Unsworth of the BBC echoed this saying that, "producers up against deadlines reach for their contacts book and they go for the tried and tested".[233]

153.  Sky reminded us that 24 hour news channels face a greater challenge because they work "at a faster pace to other news programmes".[234] It is clear that news programmes must be produced at greater speed than other factual genres and that this can impact on the ability to consider the gender balance of contributors.

154.  Other witnesses pointed to a confidence gap between men and women which led to fewer women putting themselves forward as experts. A number of respondents suggested that men generally have more self-belief than women. Liz Leonard stated, "As a producer, I have noticed … a reluctance on the part of women experts to put themselves forward, even when … they are more knowledgeable than their male counterpart."[235]

155.  Similarly, the BBC told the Committee that research had shown that women were more likely than men to consider themselves "not expert enough". Professor Ross observed that women often needed "a little bit more nurturing and encouraging", which was difficult for producers under time constraints to provide.

156.  A number of witnesses cited financial pressures as a reason for the gender inequality amongst experts. Creative Skillset said that "Lower budgets and other pressures in news production and broadcasting in general may often be a barrier for using new people, rather than 'those already in the system'."[236]

157.  Liz Leonard explained that "As production budgets have been slashed, pressures to identify contributors as quickly as possible have increased. It takes time to both identify and nurture new female talent."[237]

158.  We were interested to learn that the publicity and notoriety which may result from television and radio appearances can deter women in greater numbers than it does men. City University's study showed that, "71 per cent [of women] said lack of self-confidence and fear of criticism deterred them from appearing as experts."[238]

159.  There have been several recent incidents of online abuse of female presenters and experts. Fran Unsworth explained that, "There is a level of abuse sometimes that people get when they put themselves forward. Not everybody is up for this and all credit to the ones who have stood up to it, such as Mary Beard, who defended herself and raised it as an issue".[239]

Voluntary initiatives to address the imbalance

160.  There are no mandatory obligations imposed on the broadcasters related to the gender balance of experts. We received evidence about a number of voluntary initiatives.

161.  The BBC Academy ran training days for female experts in 2013 in London, Salford, Glasgow and Cardiff. The result of these training days was that 164 women joined the BBC Expert Women database. 73 of those women have gone on to make about 347 appearances (195 on radio and 152 on television).[240] We are not aware of any plans to repeat the initiative.

162.  The BBC also ran the '100 Women' project which was a season of special reports, programmes and discussion held throughout October 2013. It culminated in a global conference where 100 women from around the world assembled at New Broadcasting House in London to discuss some of the crucial issues facing women today."[241]

163.  ITV is a member and current Chair of the CDN. It said it has "Regional Diversity Panels to strengthen links with the communities we serve, along with a Diversity Champion in each region".[242]

164.  Broadcast Magazine ran an Expert Women campaign[243] which encouraged the TV and radio industry to sign a pledge to increase the number of female experts interviewed on screen.

165.  The broadcasters were concerned about the impact any mandatory measures might have on editorial independence. In discussing the possibility of quotas, John Hardie of ITN said that, "we also are mindful … of the importance of the freedom of journalistic expression. We want to make sure … the editor is putting on television exactly the contributors they believe will tell the story and do the news best that day."[244] Fran Unsworth of the BBC echoed this, "It is best if one sticks to the idea that we are going to give the audience the person who explains their point of view in the best possible way." Nonetheless, she stated that the BBC had adopted voluntary measures.[245]

166.  Sky, uniquely amongst the broadcasters, had "set an internal target to have 35 per cent of female guest experts represented on screen."[246] This increased the number of contributors from 22 per cent pre-2012 to over 35 per cent. The BBC Trust were in favour of targets as a "managerial tool" but not as a "governance tool".[247]

167.  Respondents discussed agencies and directories which sought to encourage broadcasters to use more female experts, in particular 'The Women's Room', a database for expert women. Dr Carter concluded that this database had been unsuccessful because companies were unaware of it.[248]

168.  Some broadcasters told us that they did not use agencies or directories.[249] Channel 5 said that, "Our news programme has contact with a wide range of experts, many of them women, and does not feel the need to go to a specialist agency."[250] ITV did refer to The Women's Room, but only as "a useful additional tool".[251]

169.  We recognise the problems of using mandatory quotas. Given the dangers quotas could pose to editorial content, we do not recommend the use of mandatory quotas for female experts in broadcast news and current affairs at this time. If no progress is made in this regard the issue of quotas should be revisited. Broadcasters should create internal databases to ensure they have enough female experts represented in news and current affairs programmes. Where internal databases prove inadequate, they should be supplemented by external databases.

Portrayal of women in broadcast news and current affairs

170.  Evidence from a number of witnesses suggested that, when women are featured on news and current affairs programmes, it is often in a way which perpetuates stereotypes. ITN told us that on Channel 5 News, female experts dominated topics such as education, parenting and health.[252] The Government's evidence backed this up, citing a study of 10 countries (including the UK) which showed that female sources tended only to appear in longer news items and were preferred for "soft" news topics such as family, lifestyle and culture.[253]

171.  The figures relating to political news were particularly stark. City University discovered "Ten times more men experts than women experts are interviewed about politics, but only twice as many men experts are interviewed about health, in 38 programmes sampled."[254] Box 3 shows the data from this study categorised by topic.

Box 3: Ratio of expert interviewees by topic
·  Business: 4 men to 1 woman

·  Home news: 5 men to 1 woman

·  Foreign news: 5 men to 1 woman

·  Entertainment: 4 men to 1 woman

·  Sport: 6 men to 1 woman

·  Other topics: 7 men to 1 woman

Source: City University[255]

172.  Dr Carter cited a study[256] which found that women are often portrayed as, "victim, wife, mother, daughter, or sister of a famous man, so not in their own right for their own accomplishments." She suggested that the under-representation of women contributed to a negative portrayal of women in the media: "women's under representation at senior professional and management levels has an impact on what is reported in the news and how it is reported—in ways that typically marginalise women's voices in the news."[257]

173.  The Government agreed with Dr Carter's view, saying that unbalanced gender portrayals can perpetuate cultural norms about what society expects of men and women. In its evidence it referred to a recent All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Women in Parliament which found that the negative way in which female parliamentarians are represented in the media was a significant barrier to increasing the number of female candidates.[258]

174.  We do not consider an increase in the number of women featured in news and current affairs broadcasting enough. Broadcasters have a responsibility to ensure that women receive parity of treatment.

175.  The BBC told us that it had recently started monitoring female portrayal and representation on its Wales Today programme with the aim of ensuring that audiences are more fairly reflected.[259]

176.  We commend the Wales Today scheme to monitor female portrayal and would like to see it rolled out further.

203   Oxford English Dictionary: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/66551 [accessed 7 January 2015] Back

204   Women in Journalism, Seen but not heard: how women make front page news (2012): http://womeninjournalism.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Seen_but_not_heard.pdf [accessed 7 January 2015] Back

205   'Women still without a voice', Broadcast Magazine (7 March 2014) Back

206   Ibid. Back

207   Written evidence from Sky (WNC0003) and Channel 4 (WNC0019) Back

208   These were BBC News at Ten, C4 News, BBC Radio 4's Today, ITV News at Ten, Sky News evening shows. Back

209   Written evidence from ITV (WNC0017) Back

210   Ibid. Back

211   Written evidence from Channel 5 (WNC0008) Back

212   'Women still without a voice' Back

213   Written evidence from Channel 4 (WNC0019) Back

214   'Women still without a voice' Back

215   Seen but not heard: how women make front page news Back

216   Ibid. Back

217   Written evidence from Astute Radio (WNC0009) Back

218    Q24 (Sky) and written evidence from ITN (WNC0014) Back

219    Q23 Back

220   Written evidence from ITN (WNC0014) Back

221    Q26 Back

222    Q24 Back

223   Ibid. Back

224   'Women on Air' Back

225    Q23 (ITN) and  Q24 (Sky) Back

226   BBC Trust, Trust Conclusions on the Executive Report on Science Impartiality Review Actions (2014): http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/assets/files/pdf/our_work/science_impartiality/trust_conclusions.pdf [accessed 7 January 2015] Back

227    Q4 Back

228   Written evidence from Creative Skillset (WNC0015) Back

229   'Women and news: a long and winding road' Back

230   Written evidence from ITV (WNC0017) Back

231    Q4  Back

232   Written evidence from ITN (WNC0014) Back

233    Q23 Back

234   Written evidence from Sky (WNC0003)  Back

235   Written evidence from Liz Leonard (WNC0013) Back

236   Written evidence from Creative Skillset (WNC0015) Back

237   Written evidence from Liz Leonard (WNC0013) Back

238   'Women on Air' Back

239   Bomb threat tweet sent to Classicist Mary Beard, BBC News (4 August 2013): http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/23565145 [accessed 7 January 2015] Back

240   Written evidence from BBC (WNC0021) Back

241   Ibid. Back

242   Written evidence from ITV (WNC0017) Back

243   'Broadcast launches expert women campaign' Broadcast Magazine (9 February 2012): http://www.broadcastnow.co.uk/news/people/broadcast-launches-expert-women-campaign/5037709.article [accessed 7 January 2015] Back

244    Q23 Back

245    Q25 Back

246   Written evidence from Sky (WNC0003) Back

247    Q39 Back

248   Written evidence from Dr Cynthia Carter (WNC0012) Back

249   Written evidence from Channel 5 (WNC0008) and ITN (WNC0014) Back

250   Written evidence from Channel 5 (WNC0008) Back

251   Written evidence from ITV (WNC0017) Back

252   Written evidence from ITN (WNC0014) Back

253   Written evidence from Government Equalities Office (WNC0020) Back

254   Women on Air Back

255   Ibid. This data was collected over a three week period in 2013. Back

256   Who makes the news? Back

257   Written evidence from Dr Cynthia Carter (WNC0012) Back

258   Written evidence from Government Equalities Office (WNC0020) Back

259   Written evidence from BBC (WNC0021) Back

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