1 February 2012
A BBC-commissioned report has highlighted a "strong concern" among viewers about the lack of middle-aged and older women on television.
Camilla Palmer, partner in the employment team at Leigh Day & Co, who represented former Countryfile presenter Miriam O'Reilly in her successful claim for ageism at the BBC, said:
"We've known for a long time there is a lack of women over 50 throughout the media. This was highlighted by Miriam's case and is now backed up by detailed research which has shown that people are aware that there are not enough older women on-screen, and there is the perception that the BBC favours younger women as presenters.
“I believe the problem is that women are too often judged by their looks, which hits older women particularly hard. Men's appearance is not nearly so important; older men are perceived as having gravitas, women as having wrinkles.
“Miriam's case was the tip of the iceberg. We believe that there are many more cases but the people involved are not prepared to go public. Instead they leave quietly with compensation, but with their career in tatters as those that complain are seen as trouble makers.
"This male bias has an effect at the other end of the spectrum. The report showed that many believe young women shown in a bad light – often as promiscuous ‘airheads’ – where young men are portrayed more positively as macho ‘studs’.
"We welcome the fact that the BBC dealing with these issues. Now it must take real and transparent action to ensure that the prejudice against women is stopped. As a public body it must be brought to account if we do not see change over the next few months. This is the perfect opportunity for the BBC to set the pace for change, which includes an assurance that those who speak out are not victimised.”
Miriam O'Reilly, who, with Camilla, is setting up an advice forum the Women's Equality Network, which aims to support female victims of discrimination, also spoke out following her recent departure from the BBC. She told the Guardian:
"There is an entrenched view in television that viewers only want to see young faces.
"It is an outdated notion. Viewers want to see all ages represented. This report is a clear message to programme makers and they have to start listening.
"Since I won my ageism claim against the BBC there has been an acceleration in the number of older women on TV but we are only seeing a token amount in primetime and we have got to see more."
She said TV controllers and commissioning editors should "nurture the older women that are in TV already, not undermine them, and not ridicule them because of their age. They should be supported in their careers".
"Maybe it's time for some TV executives to move on. If they are not going to accept what viewers want maybe it's time they looked at their own careers.
"TV executives put women on TV that they want to see, and this is primarily pretty young women. It isn't what the viewers want and they ignore viewers at their peril."
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