Why aren’t there more female comedians on panel shows?

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Since February of last year all-male panel shows have been banned in favour of diversifying the entertainment industry and letting more women in on a slice of the pie. And although the idea sounds good in theory – having more women on shows cannot be a negative thing in itself – many have criticized the measure. It’s time to look at why such criticism has so far been invalid.

Boss of the BBC, Danny Cohen, told newspapers that “It’s not acceptable” to any longer have women absent from the previously boys-club shows such as QI and Mock the Week. This is a big step forward in terms of representation. There is no veritable proof that either men or women are the funnier or smarter sex, but having a woman present at the table can definitely encourage girls to make their own way in comedy and other forms of entertainment. The surprising disregard of women on such shows does not only affect young girls and women, but the female panelists who were lucky enough to make the cut before the decision. Jo Brand, an occasional host of Have I Got For You and a panelist on Mock the Week, said she would no longer consider doing the program until the BBC took such measures. Not only is Jo Brand a great comedian but she’s a wonderful role model when it comes to supporting women, by espousing the mantra of body-positivity and vocalizing her support for single mothers. It is of course unpleasant and beyond comprehension why women, who are so openly and clearly supportive of others, are seen as add-ons in a show, while men like Jeremy Clarkson were allowed to spread like an infestation through many of the BBC’s programmes.

One can argue that such an example of affirmative action goes against meritocratic principles that should govern any workplace. By this logic, if women were actually funny or smart, or whatever quality is necessary on these shows, then we’d see no end of them in panel shows and they’d displace the men. The impartial labour market would make all the provisions and those with the most talent would obviously have all the jobs. Another argument, which I have heard riled at myself, is that there aren’t enough women on panel shows because women don’t want to be on them. Ambition is foreign to our gender and any woman who protests should let the men talk some sense into her. Instead women are too busy being housewives and cooking eggs in the morning for their husbands. As if women were incapable of multitasking. However, you’d have to be completely blind to the institutionalized sexism that is rampant in the labour market, or just be sexist, to adopt either of these positions.

Dara O’Brian, Irish comedian and host of Mock the Week, claimed that female comedians on panel shows would now be seen as the “token women”. Furthermore he claimed that people were spending too much of their time focusing on advancing women in this industry rather than bringing up the issue on Question Time and solving women’s rights on a larger scale. His arguments, however, are only valid superficially. Although it would be great to see the UK Parliament engaging in frequent, positive debates about women’s rights, instead of stumbling over basic issues like the tampon tax, somewhere a precedent has to be set. If women are now helped onto panel shows then this can create a domino effect in other TV companies, or other industries, to create the much-needed support for female talent. Furthermore, perception is an incredibly subjective factor, and no one apart from Dara is obliged to see the influx of women in panel shows as a ‘token’ gesture. The problems in the industry are institutional and not creative; once women are on these panel shows they can hold their own among the men with ease.

Finally, this does not have to be a permanent feature. Once women have their foot in the door, the BBC can abolish such measures. Yet there is always more to be done. Apart from diversity in gender there is currently a distinct lack of ethnic diversity in BBC programmes, and no similar measure has yet been put in place. So despite the BBC taking a very positive step forwards, they have yet to set eyes on the goal of equality.

Photograph: Andrew Campbell via Flickr

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