The University of Lincoln has hosted two notable female journalists from the BBC in recent weeks: Angela Rippon, a journalist and presenter, and Helen Boaden, the director of BBC News.
Angela Rippon became the first female journalist appointed to read the news regularly on British Television in 1975. However, for someone working in a male-dominated world, she never actually felt that she faced any prejudice.
“There was an awful lot of comment in the press because there had never been a woman before reading the news on a regular basis, but I was not the tea girl who had been promoted overnight.”
Rippon pointed out that she had worked hard to get her credibility as a journalist, beginning her career in newspapers at the age of 17 on the Western Morning News as a photographer.
She developed her skills by working on BBC local radio and eventually moved to BBC television working as a reporter, presenter and a director. This, she said, made things simpler for her.
“I had credibility as I had a track record as a journalist [and] as a broadcaster. So, when I started reading the news, no one could turn around and say ‘she’s just there because she is a woman.’
“I was actually there because my bosses at BBC Television Centre recognised that I was a journalist with credibility, that I could read the news, and that I was someone that the British public took to immediately.”
Helen Boaden, who was the first woman to be in charge of BBC News and, unlike Rippon, felt that women were not being represented enough at the Corporation.
“John Birt was Director-General [and he] felt passionately that the gender balance at the BBC was wrong… He did make it clear that he wanted that to change, and since women are 51% of the population they should at least have some of the senior roles at the BBC.”
As a consequence of lifestyle choices, Boaden believes that women are not represented in higher positions.
“What’s interesting to me is that it is very hard to get women who want to be editors, and I think that is partly because very often you’re at a stage in your 30s, which is just when you have youngish children, and being an editor for most people is a 24/7 job.
“So, it’s not that we don’t have very good women journalists at the BBC — we do — but actually often they decide that they don’t want to apply for the editors’ jobs, the next rung up, because it just doesn’t work in terms of their family life balance… A lot of women think ‘It’s not worth it for me, I do love my job, I love this particular job, but I want to see my children grow up’.”
Rippon is optimistic that the improved representation of young women in current affairs will continue and, in turn, improve the treatment of older women on television: “The young women who are now inhabiting it, there are as many of them as there are men, and they are as good if not in some certain cases better than the men, [and] they will still be there in 20 years time.
“So, in 20 years time we won’t be having this argument about where all the mature women are… and this whole question of women in journalism and women in broadcasting will be dead in the water because it will no longer be applicable.”
Boaden has a lot of respect for Angela Rippon and her work. She agrees that older women are not treated fairly by the media, in that the same standards are not applied to men: “There are lots of men over 50, if you look across broadcasting generally, [yet] in every genre there aren’t many women of my age on screen.
“BBC News has got a pretty reasonable track record, but it is an industry-wide problem.”
The problem, that Boaden has identified, is to break a previously held image of the BBC, as they have faced criticism for not respecting older newsreaders: “I talk to a lot of women in their later 40s who think we will just get rid of them in their late 40s. As long as I am director we won’t.”