University Challenge and sexism rows go together like Jeremy Paxman and a withering look. In the past ten years, viewers have agonised over why so few women appear on the quiz show.
All-male teams and all-male finals – such as last year’s clash between Balliol College Oxford and Wolfson College Cambridge – have been criticised by figures including Gloria de Piero and Mary Beard. Even Paxman questioned the lack of female contestants on screen in 2015.
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. Earlier this year, I spoke to University Challenge question-setters for a piece in the New Statesman and they revealed that viewers wrote in to criticise their male-orientated questions, too.
It’s easy to dismiss these cyclical sexism rows as manufactured outrage, but University Challenge is a British institution that reaches millions of people every week. Its continued cultural relevance means it has a significant influence on our understanding of hierarchies of knowledge and our awareness of who history’s greatest thinkers are.
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.
Rosie McKeown, who dominated on last series’s winning team, St John’s Cambridge, told me she believes there are a number of factors that lead to gender imbalance on the show. “The most obvious one is, unfortunately, the hostility that some female contestants are subjected to on social media. 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.”
Hannah Rose Woods, captain of the 2015-6 series’s winning team, Peterhouse Cambridge, agrees. “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,” she says.
“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 grow up being told that something isn’t ‘for’ someone like you, it’s hard not to internalise that logic.”
Peter Gwyn, executive producer of University Challenge, explains that the programme aims to gender-balance its teams and the subjects of 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,” he says. “And we will always do everything we can to encourage more women to take part as contestants. Ultimately, though, the make-up of each team is decided by the university it represents: each institution has its own selection process.”
Bobby Seagull, former captain for the Emmanuel Cambridge team on the 2016-17 series, has some insight into how one team is put together: he has led the college’s selection process for the subsequent two series. “We advertise in college internally about trials and of the people who reply between 70 and 90 per cent are men,” he explains. “Clearly we have an issue with getting women to apply, and part of this may be due to the negative historic and recent experience of women contestants on social media. This is a shame. We must keep encouraging more women to apply, but also call out those people on social media who think it’s appropriate to objectify contestants.”
The make-up of teams aside, Gwyn is also acutely aware of the need to make sure the questions are unbiased. “There are numerous balances we try to achieve in the questions we cast for each match, between the arts and the sciences, or between contemporary and historical themes, and we recognise that the gender balance is of great importance.”
Woods explains that shows like University Challenge shape our understanding of what general knowledge means. “Deciding what does and doesn’t go in the ‘canon’ is an exercise in power. It isn’t an accident that encyclopaedias have historically been filled with the achievements of straight, white men – the voices of marginalised groups have often been written out of history because of assumptions about what ‘greatness’ is, and what intelligence looks like.
“If question-setters send the message that it isn’t enough to know your Titians from your Tintorettos when you can only vaguely remember the names of three female artists, it changes for the better how viewers and contestants approach the programme.”
Both men and women are on the team of question-setters writing for the show. But even so it can be difficult to hit on exactly what makes a gender-balanced set of questions.
“Perhaps ‘gender-neutrality’ is what we aim for,” says Gwyn. “We try to ensure that when hearing a question, we don’t have any sense of whether it was written by a man or a woman, just as questions should never sound as if they are directed more at men than women. We believe very strongly that the more representative, inclusive and diverse we can make the programme, the better and more interesting it will be. We hope the programme gets better and stronger with each passing series – but our viewers will let us know if they agree!”
Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman’s deputy culture editor