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I was on University Challenge - so let me tell you why there aren't more women on it

"Why aren't there more women on University Challenge?" lament the same newspapers which cheerfully objectify young female contestants.

Having appeared on last year's University Challenge final, last week I received a couple of messages on Twitter from a Daily Mail reporter, asking if I would comment on the lack of women there this year – since Balliol College, Oxford and Wolfson College, Cambridge both fielded all-male teams. Not wanting to speak to the Mail, I ignored the messages, and thought no more of them.

Unbeknown to me, members of the Balliol team had also been contacted by the same journalist – although without mention that they would be interviewed for an article on female under-representation. Their response was to issue a thrillingly polite takedown of the newspaper’s “long record of hateful comments about women, minorities and marginalised groups”. History student Freddie Potts was first to reply: “Hi Laura – I have nothing against you personally, but equally I have nothing to say to the fascist rag that employs you.” Astrophysics DPhil Benjamin Pope clarified the team’s press policy: “Hi! As a team, we won’t be interviewed by the Mail. We know it’s not your fault, but we must ethically boycott that hateful publication.”

The response from social media was immediate, as fans, journalists, and even the odd MP, took to twitter in praise of the contestants. “Not all heroes wear capes”, memed one Balliol fan, whilst Alastair Campbell tweeted approvingly: “if only more people had the balls to call them out for what they are”.

Meanwhile, at the Daily Mail: in a superb volte-face of reactionary evil-genius narrativising, the resulting article was headlined “Student equality campaigners slam all-male University Challenge final blaming ‘hostile’ world of quiz societies”. Forced to change tack when unable to find any contestants willing to be quoted in the paper, the article became about how the kind of University quiz tournaments of which the finalists were part are “very hostile to women”. Inevitably, the Balliol team was quoted as having refused to answer questions they had not yet been asked. The Telegraph ran a similar piece, which indicted both the “hostility” of “quizzing environments”, and sexist social media discussion centring on female contestants’ looks.

While I would echo the Balliol team’s emphasis that this is no criticism of individual reporters doing their jobs, the articles have more than a whiff of hypocrisy about them, given the newspapers’ own histories of sexist reporting of the few women who do appear on University Challenge. It's good that we're talking about why women are discouraged from putting themselves forward to audition at University level – but it seems ridiculous to point the finger solely at Twitter trolls and putatively misogynistic quiz societies, when the same papers pant over “pretty blonde” female contestants with “beauty AND brains”. Just two weeks earlier, the Mail described Corpus Christi, Oxford’s Emma Johnson as “the hottest contestant ever”, an “overnight sex symbol” who “insisted she doesn’t feel sexy” while wearing hospital scrubs in her job as a trainee doctor – because, you know, saucy uniform &c.

I have a little experience of my own of being the subject of tabloid attention after my appearance on the programme last year, which focused with dispiriting regularity on what I can only think to designate as ‘lady stuff’. (I like to imagine that tabloid editorial meetings are like boardroom scenes from the early seasons of Mad Men, when the characters are brainstorming marketing ideas for products aimed at women: just people standing around, bemused, mishandling lipstick and hosiery, and shouting at each other “WHAT DO WOMEN WANT?? WHAT DO THEY WANT FROM MEN??”) The Mail thus focused on whether I’d received any Valentine’s Day cards, or gifts from admirers as a result of appearing on the programme.

They weren’t the only paper to have reported in this vein. The Telegraph noted that I wouldn’t “walk away empty-handed” from the final, because I had “won” a marriage proposal on Twitter – suggesting that an offer of marriage from an anonymous egg was somehow a prize I could hold in my lady hands, a bit like the actual University Challenge trophy I actually won.

It was a tiny, fleeting moment of insight into how difficult it is not to seem like an idiot in media interviews, and how what you say often bears only a passing resemblance to what you are quoted as saying. In the midst of a long interview about feminism, future career plans, and the experience of taking part in University Challenge, one reporter asks you something like: “what’s the weirdest thing that’s happened to you as a result of taking part in the programme?” You say that a couple of strangers sent gifts to your college pigeonhole. The next day, a second paper quotes the interview – you have been FLOODED with gifts. Nay, three articles later, you are INUNDATED with them. In fact, you didn’t so much tell the reporter this as having admitted to it.

I’m aware of how relatively genteel these headlines are, compared to the worst excesses of tabloid misogyny. Christ, it’s not even former contestant Gail Trimble being asked to appear in Nuts. But, contextually, the clickbait seems more sinister. Next to the Mail Online’s article about pretty blonde Emma Johnson revealing she’s single, for example, the Sidebar of Shame has the usual run of female celebrities revealing their baby bumps, flashing their abs, flaunting their enviable curves, showcasing their eye-popping assets, displaying their nipples through an opaque shirt, looking haggard and unrecognisable without make up, turning heads, showing off, putting on a leggy display – and all the other inventive synonyms that the Mail has for women being corporeal, much like other humans. Is there any wonder that women are reluctant to put themselves in the public eye, when they are presented as one long striptease: teasingly exposing themselves to public scrutiny, revealing their bodies and private lives bit by bit?

So, for the newspapers lamenting that so few women choose to take part in University Challenge, and wondering why this can be, I have a few suggestions. Don’t publish articles that launder your own sexist focus through screenshot after screenshot of leering comments from Twitter users, before concluding that social media is to blame for the intense scrutiny to which female contestants are subject. Don’t gratuitously turn the issue of female underrepresentation into a bit of BBC- or Oxbridge-bashing. If you, as a concerned journalist, want to write an article that genuinely attempts to overcome the male-dominated nature of the programme, don’t write it for a newspaper known for its misogynistic treatment of women.

And to any women who are hesitant to take part in University Challenge, I have a plea. Please audition. Please take part. It is ridiculous that, in 2017, media attention will follow you around for a bit, pointing out in various ways that you are, in fact, a woman. You shouldn’t have to deal with this crap. But please don’t stop auditioning.

Hannah Rose Woods is a postgraduate student at Cambridge University and a former winner of University Challenge. She tweets @hannahrosewoods

Photo: Channel 4
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Who will win Great British Bake Off 2017 based on the contestants’ Twitters

An extremely serious and damning investigation. 

It was morning but the sky was as dark as the night – and the night was as dark as a quite dark rat. He walked in. A real smooth gent with legs for seconds. His pins were draped in the finest boot-cut jeans money could buy, and bad news was written all over his face. “I’m Paul,” he said. “I know”. My hooch ran dry that night – but the conversation never did. By nightfall, it was clear as a see-through rat.   

Some might say that going amateur detective to figure out which contestants win and lose in this year’s Great British Bake Off is spoiling the fun faster than a Baked Alaska left out of the freezer. To those people I’d say: yes. The following article is not fun. It is a serious and intense week-by-week breakdown of who will leave GBBO in 2017. How? Using the contestants’ Twitter and Instagram accounts, of course.

The clues are simple but manifold, like a rat with cousins. They include:

  • The date a contestant signed up for social media (was it during, or after, the competition?)
  • Whether a contestant follows any of the others (indicating they had a chance to bond)
  • A contestant’s personal blog and headshots (has the contestant already snaffled a PR?)
  • Pictures of the contestant's baking.
  • Whether a baker refers to themselves as a “baker” or “contestant” (I still haven’t figured this one out but FOR GOD’S SAKE WATSON, THERE’S SOMETHING IN IT)

Using these and other damning, damning, damning clues, I have broken down the contestants into early leavers, mid-season departures, and finalists. I apologise for what I have done.

Early leavers

Kate

Kate appears not to have a Twitter – or at least not one that the other contestants fancy following. This means she likely doesn’t have a book deal on the way, as she’d need to start building her social media presence now. Plus, look at how she’s holding that fork. That’s not how you hold a fork, Kate.

Estimated departure: Week 1

Julia

This year’s Bake Off began filming on 30 April and each series has ten episodes, meaning filming ran until at least 9 July. Julia first tweeted on 8 May – a Monday, presumably after a Sunday of filming. Her Instagram shows she baked throughout June and then – aha! – went on holiday. What does this mean? What does anything mean?

Estimated departure: Week 2

James

James has a swish blog that could indicate a PR pal (and a marketing agency recently followed him on Twitter). That said, after an April and May hiatus, James began tweeting regularly in June – DID HE PERHAPS HAVE A SUDDEN INFLUX OF FREE TIME? No one can say. Except me. I can and I am.

Estimated departure: Week 3

Tom

Token-hottie Tom is a real trickster, as a social media-savvy youngster. That said, he tweeted about being distracted at work today, indicating he is still in his old job as opposed to working on his latest range of wooden spoons. His Instagram is suspiciously private and his Twitter sparked into activity in June. What secrets lurk behind that mysteriously hot face? What is he trying to tell me, and only me, at this time?

Estimated departure: Week 4

Peter

Peter’s blog is EXCEPTIONALLY swish, but he does work in IT, meaning this isn’t a huge clue about any potential managers. Although Peter’s bakes look as beautiful as the moon itself, he joined Twitter in May and started blogging then too, suggesting he had a wee bit of spare time on his hands. What’s more, his blog says he likes to incorporate coconut as an ingredient in “everything” he bakes, and there is absolutely no bread-baking way Paul Hollywood will stand for that.

Estimated departure: Week 5

Mid-season departures

Stacey

Stacey’s buns ain’t got it going on. The mum of three only started tweeting today – and this was simply to retweet GBBO’s official announcements. That said, Stacey appears to have cooked a courgette cake on 9 June, indicating she stays in the competition until at least free-from week (or she’s just a massive sadist).

Estimated departure: Week 6

Chris

Chris is a tricky one, as he’s already verified on Twitter and was already solidly social media famous before GBBO. The one stinker of a clue he did leave, however, was tweeting about baking a cake without sugar on 5 June. As he was in London on 18 June (a Sunday, and therefore a GBBO filming day) and between the free-from week and this date he tweeted about bread and biscuits (which are traditionally filmed before free-from week in Bake Off history) I suspect he left just before, or slap bang on, Week 7. ARE YOU PROUD NOW, MOTHER?

Estimated departure: Week 7

Flo

Flo’s personal motto is “Flo leaves no clues”, or at least I assume it is because truly, the lady doesn’t. She’s the oldest Bake Off contestant ever, meaning we can forgive her for not logging onto the WWWs. I am certain she’ll join Twitter once she realises how many people love her, a bit like Val of seasons past. See you soon, Flo. See you soon.

Estimated departure: Week 8

Liam

Liam either left in Week 1 or Week 9 – with 0 percent chance it was any of the weeks in between. The boy is an enigma – a cupcake conundrum, a macaron mystery. His bagel-eyed Twitter profile picture could realistically either be a professional shot OR taken by an A-Level mate with his dad’s camera. He tweeted calling his other contestants “family”, but he also only follows ONE of them on the site. Oh, oh, oh, mysterious boy, I want to get close to you. Move your baking next to mine.

Estimated departure: Week 9

Finalists

Steven

Twitter bios are laden with hidden meanings and Steven Carter-Bailey’s doesn’t disappoint. His bio tells people to tune in “every” (every!) Tuesday and he has started his own hashtag, #StevenGBBO. As he only started tweeting 4 August (indicating he was a busy lil baker before this point) AND his cakes look exceptionally lovely, this boy stinks of finalist.  

(That said, he has never tweeted about bread, meaning he potentially got chucked out on week three, Paul Hollywood’s reckoning.)

Sophie

Sophie’s Twitter trail is the most revealing of the lot, as the bike-loving baker recently followed a talent agency on the site. This agency represents one of last year’s GBBO bakers who left just before the finale. It’s clear Sophie’s rising faster than some saffron-infused sourdough left overnight in Mary’s proving drawer. Either that or she's bolder than Candice's lipstick. 

Chuen-Yan

Since joining Twitter in April 2017, Yan has been remarkably silent. Does this indicate an early departure? Yes, probably. Despite this, I’m going to put her as a finalist. She looks really nice. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.