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Let's have more feisty women on TV

IN 2011, when The Guardian's Kira Cochrane examined the British media for a month, she found that 72% of Question Time contributors were men and 84% of reporters and guests on Radio 4's Today programme were men.

This was fairly enlightening, given that just the previous year Jeremy Paxman had said that the worst thing to be in his industry was a white, middle-class male. The truth was, that in opinion-forming public life, women were barely there. Attempts have been made since then to shift the culture. The BBC set up special presenting training days for women who were experts in their subjects. Earlier this year, BBC director, Danny Cohen, said he would ban all-male panel shows. But look around, and it still feels as if the key political shows of our time are associated with men. Question Time is David Dimbleby. The Channel 4 News is Jon Snow. The Andrew Marr Show is Marr. And Newsnight is Jeremy Paxman.

And it's not just the big political shows. The expensive, landmark series commissioned by the BBC in recent years also tend to be fronted by men. It seems, as a culture, we're still not at a point where women are being embraced as authority voices.

If Cochrane were to do her research again, I imagine the statistics would have edged a little in favour of the female, but not by much. However, one of the core institutions of our media, the BBC, has the opportunity to create a significant shift right now. Not only has Paxman just announced his departure from Newsnight, but the BBC has commissioned a remake of Kenneth Clark's pioneering documentary series Civilisation and has yet to announce a presenter. In both cases, there are hopes that the positions will be filled by women. Last week, writer Kathy Lette organised a petition demanding that a woman be given the Civilisation job. "Having a female presenter," she said, "would ensure that the Civilisation remake would give women a voice in the story."

Earlier this year, one of her suggested presenters, the classicist Mary Beard, wrote about why women still didn't feature so much in television "beyond sitting next to the main (male) presenter on the breakfast TV sofa". Beard is against quotas, believing they would "leave desperate producers ringing round all the women they can possibly think of to fill 'the woman's slot'. I don't think it would be much fun being the woman vilified in all the reviews as the one taking the quota place".

Lette isn't asking for a quota, of course. Rather, she is highlighting how many very talented women there are who could front Civilisation but might otherwise be passed over. And, actually, I think this is what we need. Not quotas, but simply voices nagging for more women, and bigging up the rather brilliant ones that are out there.

With Newsnight, the chances that the new Paxman will be female look strong. Bets opened at the bookies last week with Scottish political journalist and current Newsnight presenter Laura Kuenssberg as favourite at 11/1. Of the top five, four are women, including Newsnight presenters Kirsty Wark and Emily Maitlis as well as Mishal Husain.

Following Paxman is always going to be a tough job. It will he hard for anyone to measure up against that trademark pugnacity and withering arrogance. And it's not uncommon to hear people question whether women can master this combative interviewing style or ask whether they are tough enough for the sharp end of political interviewing. Ceri Thomas, former editor of The Today Programme, caused controversy back in 2010 when, on being asked why more women were being seen on the BBC News channel but not heard on Today, he said: "Because I think those are slightly easier jobs. They are difficult jobs but the ­skillset that you need to work on the Today programme and the hide that you need, the thickness of that, is something else. It's an incredibly difficult place to work."

Actually, I think women are stuck between a rock and a hard place. As Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, has said: "Aggressive women violate unwritten rules about acceptable social conduct. Men are continually applauded for being ambitious and powerful and successful, but women who display these same traits often pay a social penalty."

Would a female Paxman be quite as cherished for her dominating swagger as this man has been? I doubt it. And though it's clear that all of the current crop of female Newsnight presenters can give a good grilling, Mary Beard has noted that such female political interviewers (like Emily Maitlis) "are still relatively few, and they still tend to be relatively young and conventionally pretty (their looks, perhaps, tending to sugar the pill of hardcore political debate)".

Things are, without doubt, changing. We now have Mishal Husain bringing up the female quota on the Today team and Susanna Reid taking centre-position on the Good Morning Britain sofa. If women were to be given the Civilisation and Newsnight jobs, that would be a real sign of a shift. The problem, though, for women, is that even as they reach that point in their careers when they can handle such authoritative positions - heading a landmark series or iconic political show - too often the culture tends to start writing them off visually. This might not be the case for Knuessberg or Maitlis who are still young, but Beard has observed this effect. Her grey hair was seen by some as a marker that should not be on television, that she was, as she termed it, past her "use-by date". The question, therefore, is not just whether women will be allowed to take the helm, but how long they will be allowed to stay there.

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