Arguably one of Britain’s most iconic programs, BBC2’s University Challenge has a serious gender diversity problem.
For the uninitiated, University Challenge sees teams from the UK’s top universities compete in an intellectually rigorous quiz show, presided over by the intimidating and inimitable host Jeremy Paxman.
However, according to The Times, of the 64 contestants who have appeared on the current series, only 17 were women – a proportion of just 27 per cent. Incredibly, this number is actually a record high for the show, equal with the 2018 season.
As reported by Indy100, there were no all-female teams entered for three years between 2017 and 2020. This series features just one all female team, from Peterhouse College at the University of Cambridge.
Former female contestants have cited women lacking the confidence to try out for the show, due to what former winning Peterhouse captain Hannah Rose Woods described as the “deeply gendered connotations” of general knoweldge.
“If you’ve grown up being told that something isn’t ‘for’ someone like you, it’s hard not to internalise that logic,” she told the Rado Times in 2018.
Woods also had concerns about how an appearance on the show could hinder her work, telling the publication, “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.”
Another factor potentially preventing women from applying for the show includes the vitriolic online abuse experienced by former female contestants.
In 2020, Lucy Clarke, who appeared on the team for Jesus College, Oxford, wrote for The Guardian about her experience.
She also cited the fact that selection within academic insitutions often favours men, but continued “after my experience with the social media circus, though, I think there’s another big reason: women don’t apply because being on the show is horrible.”
Her story referenced Tweets she saw, including a man whose bio declared him as a grandad of six.
He wrote: “all these knobs on here saying they got [a question on] massive attack along with everyone else, what other question have you answered ? Plus I’ll guess Clarke sucks like a fucking Dyson.”
Others tweeted about her appearance, including “what a mess, did she get dressed in the dark?”
Lack of gender diversity – and the social media abuse received by women – have been longstanding problems of the show. In 2015, Jeremy Paxman himself introduced the series final by promising tougher questions, and then said: “few tougher, perhaps, than why on earth are there no women left in this stage of the competition?”
Regarding the lack of gender diversity, a BBC spokesperson told The Times, “we will always do everything we can to encourage more women to take part as contestants.”
“While the make-up of each team is ultimately decided by the university it represents, we encourage all teams who apply to reflect the diversity of their student population, and we will continue to look at how we can work with universities to help them with this.”
Featured Image: The 2020/2021 grand final of University Challenge between Warwick University and Magdalene College, Cambridge, which featured one female contestant, Ceri Payne. YouTube/Dave Garda
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