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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.


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