Women in News and Current Affairs Broadcasting (Communications Committee Report) — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:20 pm on 8th September 2015.

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Photo of Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Crossbench 4:20 pm, 8th September 2015

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Best, for a very interesting report with a great deal of detail which replays close study. I declare two interests, first, as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and, secondly, as a member of an advisory group for a project on the future of the BBC that Goldsmiths, University of London, is running with some help from the British Academy. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has recently published a congruent report on supporting the television and broadcasting industry to increase diversity, not merely of women but in other respects, including age but also disability. I shall not refer to it since I hope and expect that the noble Lord,

Lord Holmes of Richmond, who has been specifically involved with this part of the commission’s work, will do so better than I could.

We are indebted to the committee for its close focus on a specific area in which diversity and equality matter and, as it says, for noting that this is the one area where the population is divided pretty well 50:50 and it is therefore particularly easy to see significantly deviating patterns. Its recommendation is the right one: the way forward in view of the current situation of women in broadcasting, and specifically in current affairs broadcasting, is not to hanker for quotas but to engage in positive action. I think we all understand the temptation to think about quotas, and that they must be relevant where there is suspicion—let alone evidence—that things are not going well and there is a lack of diversity in certain areas, and where there seems to be some reason to think that some people, or people of some sorts, are not being given a fair chance.

The committee noted two broad ranges of evidence that this was the case in certain sorts of broadcasting: the relative dearth of women, and more specifically of older women, in news and current affairs broadcasting. I wondered whether I should declare a potential interest here. However, I am not sure whether the situation is best described as one of underrepresentation of women, or specifically of older women. The report focuses mainly on employment, not on representation, and in employment our legislation requires equal opportunity and taking proper account of relevant qualifications and experience rather than the equal representation of people from different backgrounds or different groups. When we note a statistical discrepancy in the proportion of people of certain sorts in some line of activity, we may or may not have discovered something that is a cause for concern. It is a red flag rather than conclusive evidence. However, the use of “underrepresentation” is easily misread as suggesting that there must be something amiss when the proportion of persons in some line of activity differs from their proportion in the population at large. What we have is something less than that but still important. There may be reason for concern.

That is why, as the report proposes, the remedy is not positive discrimination, which is unlawful, but other forms of positive action such as making sure that opportunities are specifically drawn to the attention of those who may be getting a tacit message that people from their background will not be appointed—such as providing mentoring to promising candidates from backgrounds that may be missing, and such as ensuring an atmosphere of encouragement and information-sharing that is inclusive. To do this, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, emphasised, data are essential. So that one can tell what is going wrong or right, one needs to know what the actual situation is.

I first met this problem quite early in life when I was a research student in the United States during the days of its civil rights movement. In Memphis—not a small city—all the public employees were white; the city population was half white and half black, and both the white and black populations were fairly homogeneous. It turned out that one of the reasons for this was that all posts were advertised only in media that were read in white communities or by white people and that there was a total failure to advertise to the black community. That seems an admirable example of why positive action—rather than quotas—matters.

People often ask whether positive action is effective enough or fast enough. It can be effective if it is well used. Discussion of the positive measures that may be taken often focus, in my view rather too much, on the idea of a tie-break, by which if the two leading candidates for a post are of equal merit, it is permissible to choose the one with the less represented background. That is very nice, but the measure by itself, if honestly used, is not likely to make a vast dent in the problem. That is because, as anybody who has served on a lot of appointment committees knows very well, it is not very usual to have ties that need breaking. But I think there are other measures of positive action that are more effective.

As has already been mentioned, the most difficult stage in many women’s working lives arises when they have childcare responsibilities. We and many other developed societies have addressed this in part by instituting maternity leave. This is a wonderful change, which those of us who did not have that possibility look on with great envy—how much easier it would have been. But, of course, children need time from their parents long after they are babies, and for many women and men the crunch is drawn out for far longer.

The Royal Society addressed this a few years ago through a scheme that bears some thinking about. It instituted what I think of as “long, thin” research fellowships—that is, one or two days a week but with five years’ security. This is revolutionary because you can arrange other responsibilities around it. It also seems a very good form of positive action because it addresses a problem about which the report says rather little, that of losing skilled manpower—or, in this case, womanpower. Deskilling is a real issue, and if we expect people—women and men—to have working lives of great length, which we now do, we should be thinking about the structures that preserve their skills across periods in which the commitment they can make has to be less than full-time. That seems a very positive reason—and one connected to the long-term productivity of the economy—for taking positive measures very seriously.

We should also address some of the other obvious barriers for those with heavy non-work commitments. For example, in some lines of work, there are still tacit assumptions that certain milestones must be reached by a certain age. It is very notable in professional services: people are thinking about a tacit age when they ask when someone should become a partner in an accountancy firm. That of course bears very differently on women from on men.

We should not focus too much on only the most successful careers and neglect more modest ones. I am convinced that equality for women of middling ambition, talent and commitment should allow them to achieve success that matches that of men with middling ambition, talent and commitment. We think about this too little. We should not concentrate too much on the number of women judges or the number of FTSE board members who are women, important though these demonstrable beacons are. The objective is not positive discrimination. The need is not for quotas but for intelligent positive actions at all stages of our long, and lengthening, working lives.