Skip to main content

University Challenge may always be an unwelcoming arena to women but it's nothing to do with them not being intelligent enough

Tune into any episode of University Challenge and you may well find yourself playing a game of 'spot the female contestant'. It is a well-known fact that women, despite making up over half the population of most universities, do not enjoy the same proportional representation on the long-running BBC university quiz.

This very issue found itself back in the news this week when the Daily Telegraph ran a story on Wadham College Oxford having to shelve plans for a gender-balanced University Challenge team because they feared it would be sub-standard.

The college ran female-only trials in the hope that women would feel more confident in applying. However, they found that still very few women came forward and those that did failed to score highly.

Wadham were faced with either putting forward a 'sub-standard team', which they feared would not only reflect badly on the college but also on the women themselves, or field an all-male team of the highest scoring competitors instead.

Their student union body concluded they did not want any move to include women on their team to be viewed as tokenism as this would do nothing to further the fight for gender equality on the television show.

So why do we have this problem? It is certainly nothing to do with women not being intelligent enough to appear on University Challenge. The first matter to consider is the nature of quizzing itself. This is still considered a more masculine past-time. The idea of standing-up in a public forum and showing off how much you know is very much a man's game. Patriarchal society says it is fine for a man to display such posturing but a woman is still expected to play a more background role.

There is also a geeky, nerdish element to quiz programmes which is a persona much easier carried off by a man than a woman. It has even become fashionable for a man to be a bit of a geek but a woman is still perceived as an oddity and a bit of a social outcast. You only have to look back to Alexander Guttenplan the team captain of St John's College, Oxford, who demonstrated astonishing knowledge whilst steering his team to victory in 2010. He became a veritable pin-up with the women but I can't see an equally intelligent woman receiving the same level of adoration from men.

Even if a woman does manage to overcome all these quizzing barriers, once she is there she still has far more to prove than any man on her team. The position of the man is accepted – this is his rightful place. For the woman, she has to demonstrate she deserves to be there by answering a high number of questions correctly, otherwise she will simply be dismissed as the token female.

And so we come to the issue of physical appearance and to the crucial stumbling block of many a woman wanting to appear on University Challenge – and that is the simple fact it is a television show.

A number of female contestants who actually made it onto the programme have talked about how they were treated. Ishbel MacFarlane spoke out after appearing on University Challenge eight years ago saying she was treated very differently backstage to her three male team mates. She recounts how they were in and out of the make-up chair whilst she had false eyelashes applied and her shoulder blades, collar bones and cleavage shaded. She was then made to sit on the right of the captain - the traditional female position - which puts women in the centre and also makes it look like there are more of them there.

Women are viewed in a completely different way to men on television. Their physical appearance is considered first over any other attribute and expected to pass muster. This has been further exacerbated since the advent of social media when any female contestant can turn to her Twitter feed after the programme and expect to have been deluged with comments on her appearance.

Contestant Gail Trimble appeared on the show in 2009 and was nicknamed the Human Google by the press. She was a victim of misogynistic hate online and then invited to pose for a lad's magazine. This shows how an intelligent woman is seen as a threat even in today's society and must be immediately packaged up and managed, usually by denigrating her appearance or objectifying her.

On this basis it is hard to understand why any self-respecting, intelligent woman would put herself forward to appear on University Challenge. And indeed they are not. Their low representation on the show comes as a result of women not even attending the audition process at their universities.

But does it matter? Perhaps not. Perhaps it is better to conclude that University Challenge is a redundant concept in a more gender-equal age and as long as it continues to run it will always be dominated by male quizzers.

That does not mean I will not always feel a little frustrated when I see the token woman sat up there, her false lashes failing to obscure the fevered look in her eye as she tries to beat her male competitors to the buzzer, just to justify her presence.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A Bake Off style icon and a feline emblem of women's emancipation

The world of British politics has been dominated by the wave of sexual allegations pouring out of Westminster this week. So much so, there has been hardly any talk of Brexit. Perhaps we have left. Has anyone noticed a lack of hummus on the shelves of Tesco? But I, rather unfeelingly, digress.
MPs across all political parties have received accusations of a sexual nature against them, ranging from inappropriate comments and misplaced hands to sexual assault and rape. Prime Minister Theresa May has pledged to unite with all other party leaders next week to discuss what must be done to clamp down on this behaviour and deal with the current allegations appropriately.
Of course there have been numerous critics - those who believe we are in some way being unfair to male MPs by bringing these sexual transgressions to the fore. That a man will never be able to chat a woman up in a bar again if we persist in allowing yet another male-dominated area of society to be exposed as misogynistic and …

Older women are missing the point when they say millennials need to 'toughen up' in the face of sexual abuse

It takes a certain type of woman to come out during what can only be seen as a revolutionary time for women's rights and complain. But that is exactly what a number of older, prominent female figures have done since the sex scandal broke at Westminster and it leaves me puzzling, in the most colloquial of terms, 'whose side are they actually on'?
The pervasive idea amongst the women I refer to is that what is going on in the House of Commons as we speak is nothing but a moral panic led by the millennials. They claim that it all comes down to the younger women, who make up much of the MP's staff, not being tough enough to fend off the comments and misplaced hands of their bosses.
They further claim this is some kind of 'millennial revenge' by younger women who carry around with them a sense of disgust towards anyone over 40. Furthermore, they say, women of their generation had a far more robust attitude to men behaving badly, compared to the 'fragile' …

MP's vote on Brexit is a 'con', Johnson's apology a sop, but Theresa May's condemnation of Russia was a triumph

It has been called a 'staggering climbdown' by some but the truth of the matter is, the Government's 11th hour decision to allow Parliament a vote on the Brexit deal is just another example of Tory trickery.
David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, announced yesterday (Monday) that the final Brexit Withdrawal Bill would be presented to the House of Commons as an Act of Parliament which could be voted on in good time before we leave the European Union.
This was initially seen as a major victory on the part of Labour MPs and Tory rebels who have been calling for several months for Parliament to have their say on the Brexit deal. Davis had previously said there would not be an opportunity for MPs to vote as they anticipated work on the deal would be going on until the last minute before exiting.
But alas the devil is always in the detail and it quickly emerged that whilst MPs will be able to vote on the deal, they will not be able to have any say in the case of a no deal Brexit – …