Dame Joan Bakewell: The Battle Isn’t Over For Women On TV

In two weeks, legendary broadcaster Dame Joan Bakewell, 86, will be honoured with the BAFTA Television Fellowship. She reflects on how TV has changed for women and the challenges we still face

Joan Bakewell

by Joan Bakewell |
Published on

It’s difficult for women today to imagine the culture of the 1960s, when I first became established as a presenter. The world – of television and everything else – was run by men, while women were their attendants.

I was working on the BBC Two arts programme Late Night Line-Up when I was dubbed the ‘thinking man’s crumpet’ by comedian Frank Muir. It was typical of the way women, then rare creatures on television, were seen. I had a job just as good as the men I was working with, but it was a put-down, a way of diminishing my authority. Nevertheless, it was seen as an enchanting, witty compliment to pay to a woman and, once the male editors of Fleet Street had grabbed hold of it, it was destined to live with me ever after.

Over the five decades since, I’ve been delighted to see that male-dominated culture change. It’s no longer that world in which harassment and casual sexism were simply an accepted part of daily life – where when you got in the lift, you stood with your back to the wall to avoid being groped.

Television has become far more representative, with increasing numbers of impressive women working behind and in front of the cameras. In the ’70s, I asked the head of BBC News, ‘Might a woman one day read the news?’ and was told, ‘Absolutely not.’ Now, we have an all-female presenting team on Newsnight. But despite these significant strides forward, the battle still isn’t won.

The BBC gender pay gap scandal showed how far we still have to go before we have true equality. I found it absolutely outrageous that only one third of the corporation’s 96 top earners were women, although it tallied with what I learned when I sat on the House of Lords Communications Committee as a Labour peer in 2015.

We investigated the representation of older women in news and current affairs broadcasting and found that, despite media organisations’ claims that women had equal opportunities, the facts painted a very different picture. We heard that at the most senior levels of television and radio, there were simply not enough women.

There are also shockingly few older women in television. In the past, when I raised the issue with male executives, arguing that people like to see women of all ages represented, they told me that nobody wants to look at older women’s faces. They would never be able to say that now, but many still think it. By contrast, there’s a certain older male broadcaster type I call the ‘buccaneer’, who you often see out in deserts or on tanks, who are craggy and lined and viewed as all the more experienced and interesting for it. Sadly, there are very few female equivalents.

And, of course, women are still subjected to many of the same sexist comments that I received early on in my career. Certain newspapers have revelled in passing judgement on Emily Maitlis’s appearance and clothing, still surprised that a woman can be attractive and ferociously intelligent, too. She transcends it by being dazzling at her job and refusing to let any sniping hinder her, but it’s tiresome to see the same old tropes still in use.

Change doesn’t come fast enough for those who need it, and it comes too fast for those who try to resist it. It’s particularly tough for women in the current gig economy, when they’re more likely to settle for unequal contracts, and the extortionate cost of childcare prohibits many women from achieving their potential.

Despite the challenges, I’m optimistic about the future. Movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp are acts of solidarity. They have reminded us of something I’ve seen throughout my career: the power women have when we support one another and collaborate. Women have listened to one another’s stories and now they want to see a reckoning for the men who have abused their power. They’re also seizing the moment to tackle the injustices that remain.

The best way for women to change television is to be good at their job – and not give up. I’ve been sacked a number of times, including from Newsnight in the ’80s when my part of the programme was closed down and I was slung out. But I stayed in the race and am still broadcasting now.

There are so many fantastic young women coming through who are part of a generation that won’t stand for inequality of pay or opportunities. And there are brilliant women in their fifties and sixties, such as the news correspondent Orla Guerin and Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark, whose experience is invaluable. If all these women continue, and receive the rewards and opportunities they deserve, we’ll have something approaching true equality.

Joan Bakewell will be awarded the BAFTA Television Fellowship Award at the Virgin Media British Academy Television Awards on Sunday 12 May

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