by Natasha Maw, Programme Manager, Radio, BBC Academy
On Friday 18th January, the BBC Academy hosted a day of taster sessions for 30 female specialists to try their hand at TV and radio. It felt a long time overdue. Apart from the rumpus that had been going on in the media about the lack of women experts on TV and radio, particularly in current affairs, I knew from my days as a radio producer that there was an issue around confidence and women putting themselves forward as experts to appear on air.
My last job at Radio 4 had been as a producer on ‘In Our Time’, a programme built on the brilliance of the three academics who appear on it, and we always had an unwritten rule that we would aim to get at least one female specialist amongst those three. Sometimes we got two and occasionally we got three, but more often I would have to persuade a female academic that she was indeed the expert of choice and that she would indeed be good enough to take part in a live radio discussion.
When I scanned through the biogs of the 30 women out of 2,000 who had been selected for Expert Women day, I was overwhelmed by the range and depth of expertise. Amongst them were a theoretical physicist, volcanologist, molecular biologist, architectural historian, psychiatrist, addiction specialist, business consultant, space scientist, maritime archaeologist and renaissance historian. Oh and also Professor Frances Ashcroft, the woman who had done ground-breaking research on tackling diabetes.
I decided that a good way to draw out the collective depth of this knowledge was to run a series of mock ‘Start the Week’ style discussions where these formidable women would get an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and have a go at a group discussion around more general themes. I enlisted my former colleague Liz Barclay as presenter and another colleague Alex Dalton to co-produce.
What became apparent as the day went on was firstly that all these women were good enough to go on air. In fact, most of them were probably good enough to present a programme in their own right. But, there was also the unusual experience of listening to a fascinating discussion between four female experts with a female presenter. How often does that happen on radio? There was also a weird dynamic going on in the studio. Without any prompting from us, these experts were looking for threads and connections between their work. So a Middle Eastern specialist and a mechanical engineer branched off into a discussion about carbon management and a classicist and an architect talked about the effect of personal identity that a city bestows. Nobody was trying to compete for airtime or for the superiority of their specialism over another. Of course this doesn’t mean that male experts won’t listen to each other on live radio. But it struck me that so often we put up contributors in adversarial roles, particularly in current affairs and, like the way our political system is structured, this puts women off.
The great thing is that since that week in January, some of these women have already be commissioned and booked to appear on TV and radio. And on a collective high at having seen some of the best brains in action, we have decided to run another Expert Women Day on March 12th.
For more information about the BBC Academy please visit their website: www.bbc.co.uk/academy