Hollywood glass ceiling is shattered, but women are still losing out in film and TV

// 8 March 2010

Kathryn Bigelow at the 2010 OscarsOn the eve of International Women’s Day, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director, for her Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker. She is one of only five women to have even been nominated for this prestigious award, and last night she fought off competition from James Cameron’s epic Avatar, among others, to win six Oscars for her film. A glass ceiling has undoubtedly been shattered here, and about time too.

As Melissa Silverstein at Women & Hollywood put it:

“I never really thought this was possible even six months ago since the gender problem in Hollywood is so pervasive, but DAMN, it happened – a woman won for BEST DIRECTOR. Director is the ultimate leader in Hollywood, the big kahuna, and now, finally a woman is in the club and that my friends, is a big deal.”

To put Bigelow’s win in context, the Oscars have been running for 82 years; it took over eight decades for the representation of women in this illustrious category to leap from 0% to 1.2% (and it hardly needs pointing out that the representation of non-white, LGBTQI or disabled women still stands at 0%). That figure surely shows that however much it may be cause for celebration, Bigelow’s win also serves to remind us that Hollywood is still overwhelmingly dominated by white, straight, cis, able-bodied males.

Rachel Abramowitz at The Los Angeles Times writes:

“Although successful female directors appear to have gained higher profiles of late, the actual percentage of top films directed by women has remained static for 25 years at 7% to 9%… For instance, neither Warner Bros., the world’s largest studio, nor Paramount Pictures hired a single female director last year, while Walt Disney Studios and Universal Studios hired just one apiece. No woman has ever been hired to direct an event picture with a budget of more than $100 million, the kind of film most valued by the Hollywood machine.”

Furthermore, the situation for actors is also unequal, if not nearly as dire. She writes that female actors held “only 29.9% of the 4,379 speaking parts in the 100 top-grossing films of 2007.”

This figure is startlingly similar to one found by a study into British television, reported in The Guardian yesterday, which discovered that inequality is also rife on the small screen. Women were found to hold only a third of all broadcast roles overall (this includes actors, presenters and news anchors); the only area where they were close to being equally represented was in soap acting, whereas they made up only 31% of news broadcasters. Perhaps most depressing was this finding:

“When women do feature in news programmes, 69% of the time it’s to discuss “softer” news topics, such as health, culture or cookery.”

Or, actually, maybe it’s this one:

“When it comes to general vox pops, women are canvassed for their opinion only a third as frequently as men.”

If sexism exists in programme-making at this very basic level – which of the general public’s opinions deserve to be broadcast – what does that say about decisions being made higher up, such as who would make the best presenter, producer or director? This idea that men are more interesting, and have more to say about a wider variety of issues (especially serious and important ones), is surely at the root of the gender divide we are seeing, not just on ground level but also at the top of the tree – that very same tree that made one of its branches available to women for the first time last night?

I’m glad a piece of research has finally backed up the silent rage I feel whenever I flick on the telly and see yet another male comedy panel show with the occasional token woman. It’s not enough to study the phenomenon though; there needs to be something done about it. In an IWD spirit of optimism though, I hope that both this study and Bigelow’s victory give a strong message to women in film and television today – the situation may be crap, but change is possible.

Photo by McD D Love, shared under a Creative Commons License.

Comments From You

Sam D // Posted 8 March 2010 at 7:14 pm

My favourite sexist comment of the day- Observer film critic on BBC Breakfast claims that you can’t even tell that the Hurt Locker was directed by a woman! Phew, thats ok then!!

frank // Posted 8 March 2010 at 8:59 pm

It is great news, but shocking that she is the first to win it. It often feels like the media have an air of surprise to be reporting another ‘female first’ when surely the feminist revolution happened in the ’70s and everything has been equal since…

Jennifer Drew // Posted 8 March 2010 at 10:28 pm

Toby Young journalist writing for Daily Telegraph was interviewed by Channel 4 news and Young claimed Kathryn Bigelow has a ‘male brain’ because Young believes only a ‘male’ could have possibly understood the emotions and feelings of male soldiers.

Young is clearly incapable of accepting or even understanding that ‘male/female brains’ do not exist. instead he believes only men are capable of producing/directing films because male = human = intelligence= superiority over the world’s 52% female population.

So, Young does this mean male psychologists, men such as Freud and Jung all have/had ‘female brains?’ Because male psychologists, Freud & Jung all claim to know what it means/meant to be a woman in male dominant society.

Allison // Posted 9 March 2010 at 12:50 am

Too bad the movie wasn’t that good. I think the Academy has gotten soft.

nick // Posted 9 March 2010 at 8:56 am

Hurt Locker – not seen the flim, but it looks really good ……full of action, explosions and the ‘horrors’ of war ….

Maybe soon we can see Sandra Bullock winning best actress oscar in a flim directed by another woman , called

‘What Men Want’ …………if Mel Gibson can do ‘What Women Want’ then

why not the other way round ….

sianmarie // Posted 9 March 2010 at 9:01 am

this is backd up by our (smaller scale) research in bristol which you can read about here

http://www.bristolfawcett.org.uk/MediaRepresentation.html (go to 2009 powerpoint presentation link).

Although the number of films directed by women in our findings had improved on the 2 previous years it was still totally dwarfed by the number of men. and when we look at women on the radio or TV we still see this dreadful lack of women. some people on my blog criticised me for raising this, saying there was ‘nothing wrong with men’s voices’ and of course there aren’t, but if all you hear from the media all day are men’s voices there is something wrong because what that tacitly means is that women are being silenced!

toby young (shudder!) was on C4 news last night and said ‘isn’t it ironic that the first woman to win an oscar for director made a very male film?’

umm no toby young. in fact, i would say it was entirely predicatable. mainly because most films are male films, there are very few films that honestly talk about women or women’s lives (unless in relation to men’s lives) so it was in fact not ironic at all! obviously kathryn bigelow should make any film she likes, films about men or films about women, and of course it’s amazing that it allows us to get away from the idea that women can’t make films about men, but it would be good to see more honest films about women.

ps – also on that link you can see the airbrushing protest film we made :-)

Denise // Posted 9 March 2010 at 9:27 am

BBC Breakfast. Do not start me.

I hope it won’t happen, but I’m now wondering if this victory will be followed by a slew of articles saying women haven’t only made it in Hollywood, but are taking over and dominating the poor menz.

I also feel rage (not so silent!) when I see the same ol’ comedy panel with Token Woman. Especially when (as has happened the last couple of times I could bring myself to watch it) the token woman seemed to feel she had to be more crude and sexist than the fellas.

aimee // Posted 9 March 2010 at 11:55 am

“What men want” would be just as awful a film as “What women want”. I hate how people seem to think that films made *for* women are liked by women. They’re not. Mostly, they’re just offensive.

How does one define a ‘male’ film?

Helen S // Posted 9 March 2010 at 12:06 pm

As happy as I am that Kathryn Bigelow won the award (although I think Sopfia Copolla should have got it for Lost In Translation a few years back), the cynic in me says this has less to do with ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ and more to do with the content of her film.

I’ve seen The Hurt Locker and thought it was only OK so was quite surprised to see it do so well at the Oscars. I feel it was voted for on the basis that it taps into this American psyche at the moment that US soldiers are the ‘good guys’ doing a ‘good’ thing in Iraq/Afghanistan. Even Bigelow’s acceptance speech for the Best Director award was a nod in that direction.

Others may feel differently to me, but as someone who still believes this is an illegal war, I find it very sad. That’s just my opinion though – I also think it was classic Hollywood snobbery to avoid giving the Best Film award to Avatar, but there you go.

Julie K // Posted 9 March 2010 at 12:21 pm

I can’t stand this idea that there are “men’s films” and “women’s films”. Admittedly, I don’t want to watch non-stop car chases and explosions, but nor do lots of men, and neither do I remotely want to watch an hour and a half of slushy romance!

I found a lot of the reporting of Kathryn Bigelow’s win seemed to be on the lines of “first woman (or “female” as one source had it) to win, how amazing!” when what is really amazing is that it has taken 82 years. In which few people ever apparently felt the need to point out the amazingness of the award only ever having been won by men.

A J // Posted 9 March 2010 at 12:24 pm

@ Denise – to be slightly fair to bookers for TV comedy shows, they’re at least partly just reflecting a more general problem in the comedy scene. If you look at something like the Edinburgh Festival, which is the dominant launchpad for new comedy voices (and future comedy panelists) in the UK, the ratio of men to women comedy performers is even more extremely skewed (I’d hazard a guess at more like 10:1 in the stand-up field at least). And at Edinburgh anyone can show up and put on a show, so it’s not primarily a matter of discrimination on the part of producers, or venue owners. It seems more that there are just fewer women who decide to give it a go. Which is a big pity – audiences for comedy shows are generally a bit male-squewed, but not by anything like the same extent, so there should be plenty of women with an interest in comedy to draw from, and it’s not as if women can’t be funny!

Cycleboy // Posted 9 March 2010 at 1:05 pm

Re: comedy panel shows dominated by men.

Many years ago I wrote to ‘Just a Minute’ about this very topic. To their credit, they replied, saying that they would dearly love to have more women on the show. They had really tried but, unfortunately (at that time), few were willing to take part. Perhaps it’s a sign of progress that last night’s show was 50-50.

Joana Andrade // Posted 9 March 2010 at 1:18 pm

More depressing still is the fact that in Portugal’s most respected newspaper,one of the film critics came up a text saying that it is natural for men to be behind the camera and women in front of it and besides he was glad that a hot lady got the Oscar and not an ugly slag. Not only is this deeply prejudiced and pointless as a piece of news, but cherry on top-it had first page honors.

sianmarie // Posted 9 March 2010 at 1:25 pm

hi julie k – not sure if your comment was directed at me but reading back what i wrote i wanted to clarify – i also disagree with the concept of men’s films and women’s films, and wanted/meant to say that films that are about women’s lives or female experience are rare whereas films about male experience are everywhere. obviously both kinds of films can and are enjoyed by both sexes but would love to see more films about women’s experiences and lives, beyond the rom com.

Kristin // Posted 9 March 2010 at 1:44 pm

“How does one define a ‘male’ film?”

Aimee, you’ve tempted me!

‘Male film’ – yelling, swearing, fighting, screeching car chases that go on for ever. Guns and bombs going off, violent altercations in bars when one macho shithead thinks another has looked at him funny – or worse, looked lustfully at ‘his woman’. Rape, murder, beating, shooting, no real story or – God forbid – character development, because director just wants aimless viciousness in every scene. Macho shithead saves the world or saves good people from bad ones. Critics hail the result as a cutting edge masterpiece of stark contemporary reality. Or something.

‘Female film’ – group of women giggling about their men while they knit, cook, sew, swill coffee, tea or litres of wine. Book clubs, posing in the nip for charidee. Soppy music. Exchanging tips on how to please their men, more giggling when it comes to how to please man sexually. Smiling at and hugging rude, indifferent boy children a lot in an effort to bond with them. Little boy being more intelligent and savvy than Mum. Misty-eyed, meaningful relationships with other women in group, bitching about those outside the group. Taking cheating bastards back time after time. Having daddy ishoos. Laughing maniacally about how men do sod all around house because hey, that’s the way they are and we can’t change them. Domestic goddess or total failure to be domestic goddess and how guilty she feels about that.

Man comes in. Women pat their hair and stick out underwired boozems. Any female solidarity instantly melts away in the everlasting battle for that all-important male attention.

Final scene. Fade-out of woman kissing her man happy ever after.



aimee // Posted 9 March 2010 at 3:17 pm

Oh so it was a war story? Well that explains a lot, after all, war is only ever about men. That’s why we’re all encouraged to support ‘out boys’ (bleugh) conveniently forgetting that a lot of women serve in the forces too.


SM // Posted 9 March 2010 at 3:54 pm

Don’t forget Kristin, a male film is also one which fits into neither of your (brilliantly defined btw) categories. Because lest we forget, male is neuter and neuter is male.

Damn, I’m depressed.

Elmo // Posted 9 March 2010 at 5:34 pm

Allison, I dont think the Acedemy have gotten soft, I think theve always been a mish mash of good/terrible descions. I mean, Braveheart was a big winner, and its terrible (and offensive to both the Scottish and the English) historically inaccurate in almost every sense, over long, weridly plotted, anglophobic, patronising to the scots and irish etc etc etc. Oh and a bit sexist

I always had the feeling the Acedemy has made up its minds about what the winners will be before theve even seen some of the films. Thats why the newspapers always specualte a film will be a big winner even before it has come out.

I was pleased she won, but I also felt it was really patronising-she would have won even if the film had been quite poor. Its like “quick, give the women an oscar, then we can ignore them again for the next 60 years, and they cant excuse us of sexism”

Roxsie // Posted 9 March 2010 at 8:01 pm

“I also think it was classic Hollywood snobbery to avoid giving the Best Film award to Avatar, but there you go”

Or it might be that Avatar is a poor movie that is only as big as it is because “oh wow special effects” and “its James Cameron’s first film since…” And for once the Academy realised that and gave the award to a movie that wasn’t all “zomg 3D” and fanboys favourite.

Elmo // Posted 9 March 2010 at 9:38 pm

aaargh i meant accuse not excuse-seriously, i think too much time on the internet is very bad for you

Elmo // Posted 9 March 2010 at 9:48 pm

Avatar is just dances with wolves with very impressive CGI. EXACTLY the same plot, non?

Jessica901 // Posted 10 March 2010 at 10:06 am

Yeah I think the Oscars this year were on the money (not literally, otherwise it’d be Avatar with the gong).

Amy Clare // Posted 10 March 2010 at 11:28 am

@AJ and Cycleboy:

I can think of loads (about ten or twenty off the top of my head) of fantastic female comics who rarely if ever make it onto comedy panel shows on TV or radio. The bookers can’t be trying *that* hard, can they? And it’s not just about who is a guest on these shows – how about allocating one of the team captain slots to a woman? Mock The Week has four of ’em. Frankie Boyle’s departure was the perfect opportunity to get a female comic in as a regular, but surprise surprise, this didn’t happen! Even more subversive: how about a female presenter? I can’t think of one comedy panel programme that has one – HIGNFY only does occasionally because of their ‘rotating presenter’ thing (and even then, they hardly ever have an actual *comedian* do it; it’s usually, say, a newsreader).

As for the Edinburgh festival – you might be interested to read this article from TFW’s very own Kate Smurthwaite (also a stand up comic!) about sexism in Edinburgh festival coverage. Or have a gander at this photo, featuring 80 – yes 80! – female comics from the festival. So many to choose from in fact that Mock The Week could have an all-female panel for almost two series.

Saying ‘anyone can put on a show’ kind of ignores the fact that most festival goers only visit a handful of the most popular venues (such as The Pleasance), and at predictable times (in the evening). So not all festival shows are likely to be seen by equal numbers of people. The kinds of acts put on in these venues at these times reflect what venue owners think will be popular, so I don’t think you can assume that they are not discriminating. Festival media coverage is also instrumental in creating a buzz around certain acts, thus increasing their audience, and as Kate pointed out in her article, it can be very sexist coverage indeed.

I think it’s quite lazy of programme producers to say that they ‘try’ or that women just aren’t willing. How many women did they actually approach? If they only ask one woman and she happens to have other commitments, can they be said to have ‘tried’? And to suggest that the female comedians just aren’t there is daft, because they clearly are. I can understand how the comedy industry would give the *impression* that they weren’t, but that should not be taken at face value.

There’s only really one credible explanation for the lack of female comedians on TV and that’s sexism. Whether it’s a conscious ‘men are more funny’ thing, or whether it’s just dude producers picking dude performers because they like to watch someone who’s like them.

Elmo // Posted 10 March 2010 at 12:27 pm

yeah, i find it very hard to believe that women “dont want to go on these shows”

This is one of the things that makes me really really mad, because not booking female comedians fuels the myth that women arnt funny, which makes women reluctant to enter comedy, which fuels the idea that women arnt funny, which makes them reluctant to enter comedy, which fuels the myth that women arnt funny

its a endless cycle.

correct me if im wrong, but there are no female captains (permanent or otherwise) on any comedy shows today-HIGNFT, never mind the buzzcocks, mock the week, that one with marcus brigstoke argueing.

I actually want to be a stand-up, so the whole thing is very depressing. Ive also found (Sadly) that the people most likely to laugh at you are women, and the way to make them laugh is act like a straight man-ie pretend to flirt with them, impress them. Act like a cocky bloke. It really works! What does that say about society? Comedy has been turned into a dick swinging contest. Im also pretty sure that majoirty of audiences (as it is with theatre) are women, and i think comedy needs to cater for them more.

Paul // Posted 10 March 2010 at 12:30 pm

Denise (above) makes a good point about how the ‘token woman’ on a comedy panel is often more sexist than the men. I am often disappointed by this. The only comedian I’ve seen on panels who doesn’t do this (at least as far as I’m aware) is Jo Brand.

gadgetgal // Posted 10 March 2010 at 12:50 pm

@Paul – I’ve noticed it too, especially in that “men versus women” edition of QI, which spouted some of the same rubbish that has already been disproved with new studies (such as liking pink or not being funny). It had Sandy Toksvig and Ronnie Ancona, and I was mortified at how sexist towards women they actually ended up being! And also how they pandered to the men’s ideas of women by either behaving like girly girls (Ronnie) or agreeing that women are girly girls (Sandy).

Oh, and Sandy Toksvig is one of the few hosts of a comedy quiz that I could think of – she hosts Friday Night Comedy on Radio 4 (very funny but the season’s just ended now). She’s actually funny and not particularly sexist on that, don’t know what happened with QI…

Amy Clare // Posted 10 March 2010 at 1:06 pm


I watched that episode of QI too, and I was very disappointed by it (understatement). I thought Ronni Ancona was quite sarcastic to Stephen Fry at one point when he asked ‘Where are all the female comedians?’, and she replied that they were all rounded up and kept in a pen outside Peterborough (or something like that), but that was probably the only high point. Other than that I just remember Sandi Toksvig saying that her son liked guns and everyone just agreeing that this was ‘natural’, a discussion of the ‘pink’ study where everyone accepted it (I thought QI was a programme that exploded myths?? Come on, researchers!), and Jack Dee interrupting Ronni at one point with ‘you women never shut up’. Nice one. (So there was a fair bit of sexism on show from the fellas, too.)

Oh and this was the only episode of QI I can remember (and as a fan of the show I’ve seen nearly all of them) where they’ve had more than one woman on the show. It was as if the producers thought, ‘Oh, we’re having a battle of the sexes show – ‘spose we’ll have to get two girls on then.’ Never mind that two (or more, why not?) women could actually be on the show under normal circumstances!

sianmarie // Posted 10 March 2010 at 1:27 pm

agree on the comedy and how women always have to be laddish and ‘one of the boys’ – there was a woman on mock the week who made a joke about how women couldn’t be leaders because they would spend the whole time planning what shoes to wear (ugh yuck ugh!)

BUT – josie long was on charlie brooker’s C4 show with frankie boyle who was being his usual sexist self, an she shot him down! i felt so proud – he looked really uncomfortable and embarrassed. he made a ‘joke’ about women plumbers being lesbians and she shot back ‘i’m sorry – have we all gone back to the 50s?’. i don’t think anyone had called boyle up on his gross sexism before.

still, that’s one incident. i cannot understand why we can’t have more balanced rep on comedy shows. it’s an embarrassment. there are loads of female comedians, even if you had a male host, 2 women contestants and 2 men contestants that would be better. sometimes they don’t even have a token woman. mock the week is the worst offender on this in my opinion, although i find on a lot of C4 comedy panel shows they’ll have women but mostly non-comedian women, such as pop or TV stars.

it’s pathetic.

Jessica901 // Posted 10 March 2010 at 2:33 pm

The name of the reason I never watched mock the week was Frankie Boyle. The mere memory of his scathing ugly sexist face is enough of a deterrent to this day.

Elmo // Posted 10 March 2010 at 3:34 pm

yeah, plus him slagging off Scotland 24/7 kind of got annoying. No wonder people think its rubbish up here, he doesnt do us any favours

lindsey // Posted 10 March 2010 at 3:37 pm

I often wondered if the assumption that you’d be the only woman on the panel put a lot of female comedians off – it can be a very blokey environment and I think it’s often difficult for the token woman to get a word in, and then when she does it’s assumed that she’s there to speak for all women ever. It’s crap, because I want to like panel shows, I just feel like half the time I’m not invited.

earwicga // Posted 10 March 2010 at 6:31 pm

Am I the only one that is completely irritated with the sentiment that the ‘glass-ceiling’ has finally been broken or shattered? This is one woman achieving something no other woman has. ONE! I would compare it to the videos of thousands of sperm trying to make it into an ovum. As soon as one has got through then the ovum poisons and kills all the others. Very rarely two will get in but that is an exceptional circumstance and doesn’t mean the gates are open for twins with every pregnancy!

Cycleboy // Posted 11 March 2010 at 9:00 pm

Amy Clare:

I too was disappointed (and surprised) at the comments both Sandi & Ronnie made that appeared to bolster the gender stereotypes.

As for Jack Dee interrupting – I can’t bring the incident clearly to mind but my hazy memory was of him jumping in, in mid-sentence, and thus very deliberately shooting himself in the foot – done for comic effect as well as an implicit admission of the sexism of such a comment (of never getting a word in).

Amy Clare // Posted 12 March 2010 at 8:40 am


So Ronni and Sandi bolstered gender stereotypes, but Jack dee ‘shot himself in the foot for comic effect’… ok then. You’ve basically just repeated the stereotype that whenever a male comic does something sexist it’s for ‘effect,’ or ironic, or ‘making fun of sexism’. Couldn’t it just be that he was being sexist? The effect was the same in any case – he stopped Ronni Ancona talking, and I for one was interested in what she was saying – which was a f**k’s sight funnier than ‘shut up woman’.

gadgetgal // Posted 12 March 2010 at 8:48 am

@Amy Clare and Cycleboy – I thought it was ALL done for comedy effect, including Jack’s interruption and Ronnie being very stereotypically girly, but the actual outcome from either wasn’t very funny, that was the problem. They all played into the stereotypes and just ended up reinforcing them, not countering them. It was quite embarrassing to watch, actually – I thought Stephen Fry could have done a better job, not only at knowing his stuff and realising some of what he was saying was bollocks, but also at mediating.

Disappointing all round, sadly I don’t watch the show as much now because I figure if they got so much of that one wrong, then what about the other subjects I don’t know so much about?

Cycleboy // Posted 13 March 2010 at 10:01 pm

“if they got so much of that one wrong, then what about the other subjects I don’t know so much about?”

Can’t disagree with you there. Even on ‘simple’ things like the news (where the facts are supposed to be sacrosanct and there’s no comedy to muddy the waters) I’m often surprised when topics I know something about are presented so simplistic they end up being misleading. Worrying; especially when you realise you’ve just been impressed by other statements of ‘fact’.

Justin // Posted 22 March 2010 at 12:56 pm

Excellent piece, Amy. I’ll concentrate on one incidental area for the moment:

The panel show problem: Yes, I can’t think of any TV comedy panel shows that have female presenters. Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins (when they were still a double-act) co-hosted Casting Couch for ITV about ten years ago, but beyond that, I’d have to think for some time.

Radio is marginally healthier on this score. Sandi Toksvig has presented The News Quiz, Radio 4’s (in my view superior) original of Have I Got News for You, for about four years. But that show has been running since 1977, and its three previous hosts were all men. To be fair, the News Quiz seems to try harder to book female guests and new comics like Carrie Quinlan, Holly Walsh and Danielle Ward regularly appear. But it was the late and much-missed Linda Smith who dominated The News Quiz for years, and at a time when few TV panel shows would ever book her.

It has often been suggested that TV comedy and entertainment is dominated by men because men are usually in charge of comedy departments and TV networks. It is still extraordinary to think that BBC Radio’s entertainment department only employed its first female producer in 1981! That was Jan Ravens, who’s much better known now as a performer.

Subsequently, radio bosses tried much harder to get female producers, and most of the following went into television later as producers, directors or executives: Sioned Wiliam (Big Train, ran ITV comedy for five years), Sarah Smith (Friday Night Armistice, League of Gentlemen, now at Aardman Animations), Lissa Evans (Room 101, Father Ted), Caroline Leddy (Brass Eye, ran Channel 4 comedy for nine years) and Jane Berthoud, who produced Help, and is now the first ever female head of BBC radio entertainment. The newly appointed head of BBC TV’s entertainment commissioning department, meanwhile, is Katie Taylor. And even Have I Got News for You had a female producer for four years: Jo Bunting.

Contrast with 25 years ago when there were only two female directors in television comedy: Mandie Fletcher (Blackadder) and Susan Belbin (Only Fools and Horses…, would later produce/direct One Foot in the Grave). Fletcher was very critical of the TV comedy landscape then, with her bosses forever trying to just get her to do ‘shows for women’.

The late Harry Thompson, the first producer of Have I Got News For You, was asked quite early on why more women didn’t appear. He sighed and said, “We ask so many women to come on and very few say yes.” In fact, under Thompson’s three years at the helm, quite a few women came on the show. But relatively few made a second appearance. The ones who did tended to be journalists, or columnists. Writers rather than stand-ups.

Elmo // Posted 22 March 2010 at 1:53 pm

I think many women feel under huge pressure about going on these shows because

1) it is almost 100% certain that they will be the only women on the panel, which means:

2) they therefore stand for and represent every women listener, topic, opinion etc

That sounds silly, but I honestly feel that female comedians feel they have a duty, as the only women on the show, to be the woman for all women, which must be terrifying

Justin // Posted 22 March 2010 at 4:27 pm

More stats, sorry!

I’ve just done some checking. Only three times (and we’re in series seven now) has an edition of QI had more than one female panellist in the same week.

Interestingly, the very first broadcast edition of Have I Got News in 1990 did have two women on the panel: Sandi Toksvig and the author Kate Saunders. The next time it happened was in the third series (Joan Bakewell and stand-up Donna McPhail), and in 1993, Amanda Platell and Meera Syal were on the same week.

Here’s the full list.


333 episodes over 20 years including specials, and on only 12 editions have there been two female panellists. I’ve deliberately not included female guest hosts in that tally as they’ve usually read out a chairperson’s script entirely written by men.

Most appearances: Germaine Greer. Nine.

gadgetgal // Posted 22 March 2010 at 8:00 pm

Actually, on the panel show thread, Jo Brand wrote a piece in the Guardian giving her reasons for not wanting to appear on certain panel shows:


Obviously this is from her own perspective, but it’s interesting to hear it from someone in the know! There was also an article about Victoria Wood, but it mentions Sandy Toksvig’s remarks about unfair editing, which Jo Brand also mentioned:


I guess more people have noticed it than we realised!

Justin // Posted 23 March 2010 at 12:34 pm

I’d forgotten about those articles, thanks for reminding me of them.

There was an excellent book published in the late 1980s called “The Joke’s on Us” by Morwenna Banks and Amanda Swift (both first-rate actors and writers themselves) that examined the history of women in British comedy. Victoria Wood is one of many figures interviewed and profiled, and she admits that she’d prefer to not have competition as a performer. Obviously, it’s a dated book now (French & Saunders have only just got their own series!), but it’s well worth tracking down.

To be honest, much as I like Jo Brand, if fewer appearances on panel shows for her means that she co-writes more Getting On, I’m happy. For the uninitiated, this was a sitcom set in an NHS ward which she wrote and starred in with Jo Scanlan and Vicki Pepperdine. A second series of that is due on BBC Four soon. The first run of it may have been my favourite new comedy show of last year.

Panel shows make comedy performers (men and women) visible, but all the same, they’re ephemeral. Given the choice, I’d prefer to see something of lasting value, but I guess that people only get the chance to make something like that through being spotted on things like Mock the Week.

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