Raising female experts’ voices on radio and TV

A BBC scheme aims to tackle gender inequality

April 25, 2013

Source: Alamy

Boosting signal integrity: the BBC Academy sessions aim to bolster female academics’ confidence and technical skills to help improve the on-air gender balance

There is an epidemic among female academics. It is called “impostor syndrome” and it can affect even the most steely of professors.

It is said to take effect when a call comes through from a press office or television researcher, asking for an “expert” in the academics’ subjects.

“Their depth of knowledge may be vast but women often think: ‘There’s someone better suited than me,’” explains Donna Taberer, head of public service partnerships at the BBC Academy, a training centre with an industry-wide remit. When a man takes the call, more likely “he says yes and works it out in the taxi on the way to the studio”.

The “syndrome” may be behind shocking figures compiled by City University London’s department of journalism and published by media industry magazine Broadcast last year. These showed that the average ratio of male to female experts appearing across five major TV and radio programmes was four to one.

“Often it’s much worse than that,” Lisa Campbell, Broadcast’s editor, says. “The flagship BBC News at Ten had a ratio of nine to one, even on occasions 15 to one.”

Campbell is one of the industry leaders who opened the BBC Academy’s second Expert Women’s Day, held in London last month. The scheme is designed to target UK broadcasters’ underuse of female experts. The first day took place in January, and its success has spurred events planned for Salford, Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast.

From an initial call for experts, the BBC Academy received 2,000 applicants, and more calls will follow. For each session, around 30 women are chosen, with a wide range of expertise, ages and media experience. The aim is to help the women gain confidence in real-world situations and give them a direct line to those at the top of the industry.

At the session on 12 March, the trainees become guests on a Start the Week-style radio panel show, hosted by You and Yours presenter Liz Barclay. Despite clearly enjoying the experience, one academic emerges from the booth after a lively 15-minute segment on astrophysics saying: “It was like my PhD viva.”

For some, confidence is an issue. Waiting for their turn outside the studio, they are amazed at how professional their on-air peers sound, without realising that they elicit the same reaction when the roles are switched.

But later, in a One Show-style studio, experts in history, architecture and politics are interviewed on camera, and the presenter’s biggest issue is getting over-eager interviewees to keep to time.

In a session on presenting pieces to camera, trainees learn that audience members generally decide in just 10 seconds whether or not you are watchable. Still, experts are told to be themselves rather than act, just with greater energy.

“It’s about asking what are the other bits of me I can throw into the pot,” Francesca Kasteliz, a TV coach, says.

Although the BBC Academy’s scheme of hands-on training with personal feedback would not work on a larger scale, undoubtedly all academics can benefit from thinking about how to best present their work to the public, Taberer says.

“Often, talking to the media is seen as a distraction, but it’s not a vanity thing any more. It’s becoming more and more important to sell yourself and your institution,” she says, hinting at the need to justify all use of public money in increasingly austere times.

How academics deal with the accusation that they are “dumbing down” their work in talking to the media comes up in the final session - a 90-minute opportunity to quiz industry executives.

For Deborah Cohen, editor of science radio at the BBC, the answer is simple. “We’re not asking people to dumb down. We’re asking them to explain something to someone who doesn’t know as much as you,” she says. Tell disapproving colleagues that “as a publicly funded researcher, this is part of what I have to do”, she advises.

Promising momentum

Whether the newly trained experts will get a chance to use their skills depends on the industry as much as the women themselves. But the high level of support for efforts to increase the number of female voices on air is evident from the dozens of senior executives who turn out for the day, including Today’s Sarah Montague and Dorothy Byrne, head of news and current affairs at Channel 4.

On the back of campaigns by Broadcast, Sky News and Channel 4 News have signed pledges to invite more female experts, while City has been awarded a grant to monitor the situation for a further two years.

The BBC Academy has also created databases of female experts to increase access to those who do put themselves forward, joining existing lists such as HerSay. Such databases are critical because confidence is nothing if you are not visible, says Anne Morrison, the centre’s director.

“In the industry, there’s always a tendency when you’re rushing to get things on air to use people you’ve used before and who you know can deliver,” she adds. “It’s a lot about who you know. Well, we want it to be about what you know.”

Networking on the first training day has paid off for Sally Marlow, a King’s College London researcher. Ms Marlow pitched a radio package about alcohol and addiction to Ceri Thomas, at that point editor of Today, which appeared on the programme last month.

Success stories keep on coming. “At the start we said, let’s see how many projects we get out of this in the next six months; maybe it will be one or two. But we’ve had 20 get under way, eight already on air since January,” Morrison says.

Byrne hopes such momentum will continue.

“I think it’s actually vital for democratic debate in this country that we widen the range of experts who appear across all programming,” she tells the gathered experts, adding: “You’re also helping the people of Britain not to be bored to death by all the rent-a-gobs out there.”

Broadcasting guidelines: Dos and don’ts

  • Check that your press office knows you are keen to speak to the media and puts you forward, says Dorothy Byrne, head of news at Channel 4
  • A good first contact with the media is through local radio and building an online presence on blogs and social media
  • Be prepared to say yes to a gig, even if it is not a perfect fit, radio producer Alex Dalton says. You are still likely to know much more than needed
  • As an expert, a show will not “put you on the spot”, Donna Taberer, head of public service partnerships at the BBC Academy, says. “The vast majority of the time it is in their interest for you to do your best.”
  • On air, remember that you don’t have to say everything, presenter Liz Barclay says. Decide on the most important thing you want to get across
  • Listen to the presenter and other experts, don’t just think about your next comment. Tell stories and use analogies - the more personal, the better
  • On TV, avoid noisy jewellery and wear clothes that a microphone and transmitter pack can be easily attached to. Don’t wear close stripes or anything very bright or dark
  • Speak in full sentences to give presenters a chance to interject. Look for social cues showing when they need you to wrap up


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