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Are women still getting short-changed on Question Time?

A bit of number-crunching reveals on average in 2013, only two of the five panellists on <em>Question Time</em> were women. It's time for the BBC to be bold.

David Dimbleby, presenter of Question Time. Photograph: BBC / Mentorn / Des Willie

Last month, Martin Robbins wrote a fascinating piece for the Guardian on the lack of scientists and science writers on Question Time. He found that between May 2010 and June 2013, one reality TV star clocked as many appearances as the entire scientific community. I wondered what other groups might have been overlooked by the programme and recalled that last year David Dimbleby had come out to defend it against accusations of sexism. Given there was nothing good on telly this weekend, I decided that the best use of my time would be to open a spreadsheet on Excel and embark on some nail-biting number crunching.

I looked at the number of women who had appeared on Question Time over the last three years. Things, it seems, are getting better, but very slowly. In 2010, on average, 1.7 women appeared on each panel. (Cue totally original jokes of what seven tenths of a person looks like.) This year, the figure surged to a mighty two full women. This compares to an average of 3.1 men, or 4.1 if you include Dimbleby. The ratio could be - and historically has been - worse, but it still means that more often than not, there are twice as many men as women sitting at the table. Very infrequently does the pendulum swing the other way. I counted only eight broadcasts over the last three years with more female than male panellists.

Women are poorly represented as "experts" on TV, but they are fighting back. The Women’s Room is a project seeking to connect broadcasters to knowledgeable female experts. Bookers can search for women with particular specialisms and contact them directly. The site’s co-founder, Caroline Criado-Perez has seen more women on panels over the last year but maintains, “the bigger battle, which we really seem to be winning, is that people are aware of it as a problem.” A war has been waged by who believe (and some people genuinely do believe) that guests are booked purely on ‘merit’ (a supposedly universally recognisable, identifiable panellist quality).

It would be nice to see Question Time go all out for the rest of the year and stop ‘playing it safe’ with the same tired old three men, two women formula. If Nigel Farage, who seems to have a permanent spot on the show, was occasionally replaced with an articulate and intelligent woman (rather than another figure of ridicule) would the Beeb really be inundated with complaints? It would be nice to occasionally see the status quo challenged by all female panels, or perhaps broadcasts that featured a ‘token man’.

Things have been getting better, but it’s time to be bold. Question Time, many agree, is in dire need of reinvention. Perhaps women are the answer.

Now read George Eaton on why Nigel Farage is on Question Time so much.