The role of women in the election debates

The BBC have a certain amount of post-debate coverage on their news website today.  Much of it is very timid and tentative in tone, and it’s painfully obvious that no-one can really say anything concrete, because the judgement of how the leaders did will be made by opinion polls, and the earliest of those won’t be published until tomorrow.  In an attempt to lighten the tone a little, in addition to looking at the substance of the debate, the BBC also publish a piece in which they invite experts to look at other aspects of the debate.  So we have:

  • A Dr Max Atkinson analysing the language used by the three candidates;
  • A Mr Jason Vit analysing their respective debating techniques;
  • A Dr Harry Witchel analysing the body language of the three participants;
  • A Ms Ceril Campbell analysing hair, make-up and wardrobe;
  • A Ms Anila Baig commenting on set design and general ‘entertainment value’

So, notice anything there?  Perhaps some quotations from the experts’ respective analyses will help clarify things.

Max Atkinson:

Mr Clegg built on his success of the previous week by again trying to use phrases laden with imagery such as his line about things collapsing into a game of “political ping pong”.

Jason Vit:

Clegg’s style was far more aggressive in terms of debating tactics. He was up for going toe-to-toe. There was always a risk the audience would be put off by the new aggressive Clegg.

Harry Witchel:

David Cameron has improved – he was less anxious. His legs were together. His posture was not leaning back. His head was not tilted back. Anything moving away from the audience is disengaging. Judging by his shoulders Cameron was much more confident.

Ceril Campbell:

Cameron had a purple tie. Purple is always quite regal. Maybe it was a good call.

Anila Baig:

I was more prepared this time, put the kettle on before the debate started, and settled down for the duration. Then came the dramatic music and the set.  It was altogether a more serious affair even though it did more closely resemble X Factor with Adam Boulton the lone judge in front of the three performers.

Some extracts from the BBC’s biographies of the five experts will perhaps help to make things even plainer.

Max Atkinson:

Dr Max Atkinson is a former fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford and visiting professor at the Henley Management College. […] He has run workshops for presidential speech-writers in the White House.

Jason Vit:

For the last two years Jason has worked for the English Speaking Union (an educational charity) first as the competitions officer and currently as head of speech and debate.

Harry Witchel:

Dr. Harry Witchel is a body language expert, trainer and psycho-biologist researching at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School.  He has consulted for multinationals including Honda, Nike, DHL and Nokia

Ceril Campbell:

Ceril has a degree in Fashion, Merchandising and Design […].  Ceril now runs “Discover the New You” masterclasses where she helps to make women and men to look and feel their best through personal coaching.

Anila Baig:

Anila Baig […] studied English at university, trained as a teacher and then joined a newspaper training scheme. […] She joined the Sun […] as a feature writer, and also presented a documentary about Islam in Britain. She has written columns, general features and was also a TV previewer for the paper.

So, there we have it.

  • A panel of five experts, three men and two women.
  • The men are invited to tackle the serious subjects, the stuff that, although it is less important than policy content, might still form part of an intellectual assessment of the relative merits of the three leaders.
  • The women are invited to tackle the frivolous, fluffy stuff that should be irrelevant to any serious voter.
  • Stylistically, the men are serious, precise, authoritative.
  • The women’s contributions are jocular, uncertain, provisional.
  • The biographies of the men make it clear that they are high-powered intellectuals, with impressive credentials marking them out as acknowledged experts in the areas they have been invited to comment on.
  • The women’s biographies stress that they are less highly educated than the men, and emphasise that the individuals concerned are generalists, having no special claim to expertise in the area they are commenting on.

To summarise: the men are acknowledged experts, writing soberly about things that matter; the women are generalists, writing light-heartedly about trivia and minutiae.

Bear in mind, also, that all three candidates are men.  The presenters of all three debates – Alistair Stewart, Adam Boulton, David Dimbleby – were and will be men.  The net effect of all of this is to strongly reinforce the idea that the serious business of politics and government is something done by men, coordinated by men, and analysed by men.  Women, when they feature in the debates at all, are granted permission by a man to ask questions of other men, and subsequently to analyse those parts of the debates that are most trivial, least important.  In general, the election coverage – as in every previous election – will tackle the big topics (the economy, crime, immigration, political reform), and will then turn aside for a brief few minutes to discuss ‘what matters to women in this election’, implying that all the other topics are ‘men only’.

Let me stress that I intend no disrespect to Ms Baig and Ms Campbell.  They were hired to do particular jobs – to discuss fashion, to be light-hearted and ‘fun’ – and they do those things professionally, and with considerable skill.  No particular blame attaches to them.  The blame attaches partly to the editors and producers who decided to hire men for the serious stuff and women for the trivia, and partly to the wider media culture which endlessly transmits and re-transmits the idea that men do serious, women do trivial, to the extent that the blatant sexism hardly even registers.

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3 Responses to The role of women in the election debates

  1. David says:

    In the charity I run I have to account for every woman and man and explain any apparent inequalities of numbers and opportunities. Our funding from the public purse depends on it to some extent and quite rightly so. Why politics and the media (especially the BBC) are above the law in this respect is beyond me.

    Why are there so few women MPs and why are female TV presenters clearly picked for the youth and looks (not that I’m really complaining too much about that, although Moira Stewart was great) while male presenters get away with being ugly and bland until they die (some of them it’s hard to tell when)?

    Been reading and enjoying your blog for some time, maybe less lurking now ;-)

  2. Max Atkinson says:

    As one of the males among the ‘experts’, I found your these comments interesting. I don’t know the others think, as I’ve never met or spoken to any of them, but you’re dead right about the tentative nature of whatever I was quoted as saying. We had to be ready with some pithy comments within less than 30 minutes after the the ‘debates’ ended – whereas my work is normally based on careful (and very time-consuming) analyses of video-tapes and transcripts.

    So why did I agree to do it? One reason is that such exposure tends to increase the amount of traffic to my blog. Another is that it can sometimes have a significant impact on the sales of my books.

    I also happen to have serious worries about the way media coverage of politics in Britain has been going over the last decade or more, and thought there might be a chance to air my views to a wider audience – though, as it happens, I’ve failed to get any of this into the pieces posted (so far) in this series.

    I also agree with your complaint about the bias towards male current affairs presenters on the BBC, some of whom (e.g. Dimbleby, Humphrys, Naughtie, etc.) should, in my opinion have been pensioned off long ago. And, for what it’s worth, my own favorite BBC presenter is Martha Kearney of the World at One on Radio 4.

    But one thing that might give you pause for thought is that. for this particular feature – as well as one or two others I’ve done for the BBC Website magazine section (plus a BBC local TV News programme I was on last night), ALL the people who invited me to take part were women.

  3. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for the comments. Max Atkison, sorry your comment didn’t appear right away, the spam filter decided to get involved for some reason.

    David – It is quite hard to believe that if the selection processes for TV presenters were genuinely gender neutral there would be such an imbalance between men and women. Relating to something that Max Atkinson says in his comment, I think the BBC as a whole do rather better than the on-screen appearance would suggest, with a lot of quite senior off-camera positions filled by women (though the very senior positions seem to be disproportionately occupied by men). I also agree that it seems that female presenters – especially in the news department (it’s less apparent amongst, for example, sports presenters) – are rather more glamorous than their male counterparts (although Matthew Amroliwala scrubs up not badly…), and tend to have shorter careers. To be fair to the BBC, they are, I think, just reflecting an aspect of the wider culture. Succesful women tend to have to be more conscious of their appearance than succesful men in almost every walk of life, I think.

    Been reading and enjoying your blog for some time, maybe less lurking now ;-)

    Thank you for saying nice things. It’s always good to meet a reader. :o)

    Max Atkinson – Well, this is a new experience for me – it’s the first time somebody I’ve blogged about has responded in the comments. I will admit that my first reaction on seeing that you’d commented was a stab of wild panic, but actually, it’s very interesting to hear from you, and I’m rather flattered, if surprised, that you’ve bothered to pay attention to what I wrote.

    you’re dead right about the tentative nature of whatever I was quoted as saying. We had to be ready with some pithy comments within less than 30 minutes after the the ‘debates’ ended – whereas my work is normally based on careful (and very time-consuming) analyses of video-tapes and transcripts.

    Saying that much of the coverage was tentative wasn’t intended as a criticism, it’s just an inevitable consequence of the delay in opinion polls appearing. For what it’s worth, I think your comments were amongst the least tentative out of all the coverage – it was obvious you knew what you were talking about, even if it was also obvious that what you were saying was more of an instant reaction than a considered response.

    one thing that might give you pause for thought is that. for this particular feature – as well as one or two others I’ve done for the BBC Website magazine section (plus a BBC local TV News programme I was on last night), ALL the people who invited me to take part were women.

    Well, now, this is a little awkward. I don’t want to seem like I’m arguing against your inclusion (or the inclusion of either of the other men) on the panel of experts, since I think you handled your part very well. On the other hand, I still think that the decision to use men for the more serious parts of the discussion and women for the less serious reflects badly on those who took the decisions, even if they were women themselves. But, as I also said in my post, part of the blame attaches to the wider culture within which those women and the whole of the BBC operate, so I hope I’m not singling them out for excessive criticism.

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