Women say online abuse is barrier to University Challenge
Your starter for 10: why are so few women taking part in University Challenge? Former contestants say it’s because they are too intimidated to audition by the barrage of comments, jokes and even abuse they will inevitably face.
Rose McKeown, a star of the winning team from St John’s College, Cambridge, in the last series, and Hannah Rose Woods, captain of the 2015-16 winning team from Peterhouse, Cambridge, cited the ordeal of social media as a factor in the striking gender imbalance of the BBC2 quiz.
“The most obvious one is, unfortunately, the hostility that some female contestants are subjected to on social media,” McKeown told the Radio Times. “But I think there may also be an issue with women underestimating themselves and being hesitant to try out for the show. I hope that will change soon.”
Woods revealed her own fears before the show: “I worried about how taking part in the programme might impact my career, when Google searches started returning hundreds of articles about my appearance and random marriage proposals I’d received from strangers, instead of my academic research.
“But the problem goes deeper – there’s a huge confidence gap between men and women which makes women far less likely to put themselves forward to audition at university level. ‘General knowledge’ has deeply gendered connotations: if you’ve grown up being told that something isn’t ‘for’ someone like you, it’s hard not to internalise that logic.”
The fact that so few women appear on the programme, described as “Britain’s smartest TV show”, is a serious issue recognised by the programme team, not just a case of manufactured outrage, Anna Leszkiewicz of the New Statesman, says in this week’s Radio Times.
“Female contestants have repeatedly experienced abuse and objectification after their appearances, from Gail Trimble in 2009 to Katharine Perry in the current series, with a host of others in between,” Leszkiewicz says. “It’s easy to dismiss these cyclical sexism rows as manufactured outrage, but University Challenge is a British institution that reaches millions of people each week.
“For women and girls watching, it’s crucial that women are represented on Britain’s smartest TV show: both as contestants displaying their fierce intelligence, and as figures with breakthroughs and achievements worth celebrating in the questions.”
The classicist Prof Mary Beard agreed with McKeown. She told the Guardian: “Much as I love University Challenge, and ready as I am to sniff out sexism … I do sometimes wonder if women think they have better uses for their intelligence than quiz shows.”
Beard, whose two-part series on the history of nudity will be broadcast on BBC2 next year, said she found the format daunting, and turned down an invitation to appear on a celebrity special edition largely due to a lack of time. However, she said “a secret fear of humiliation” was also a factor.
Peter Gwyn, executive producer of University Challenge, said the show tried to achieve gender balance in both the teams and the questions. “When a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained few questions on women, we agreed and decided to rectify it. And we will always do everything we can to encourage more women to take part as contestants. Ultimately, though, the makeup of each team is decided by the university it represents: each institution has its own selection process.”
The row has flared again as the new season reveals the customary male-dominated lineups. In one recent episode an all-male team from Clare College, Cambridge, beat a team from Hertford College, Oxford, with three men and one woman.
In earlier shows, a one-woman, three-manteam from Soas University of London competed against four men from Darwin College, Cambridge. During the contest between Downing Cambridge and Pembroke Oxford (both teams containing only one woman), Pembroke’s captain, Katharine Perry, was relentlessly teased and mocked on Twitter for the size of her breasts.
Woods called the treatment of Perry dispiriting and casually degrading. She wrote in a piece for the Guardian: “Sadly, I can report from my own experience as a contestant on the programme that the no-cleavage alternative of a high-necked collar will simply prompt a slew of sadomasochistic speculation about Victorian schoolmistresses.”