University Challenge and Diversity

Another year, another rip-roaring University Challenge final, a fitting reward for those who endured the gruelling winter of repechages and qualification quarter finals. Goldman beats Monkman, and the question is asked if this man-on-man salvo shows a BBC shod of Jeremy Clarkson and all-male panel shows in the best light.

Eve Livingston identifies the problem, but not the diagnosis or solution. At the risk of mansplaining, I should know: I was part of another all-male final in 2014, representing Somerville College, Oxford, which only 20 years prior did not even admit men. It is wrong to assume that University Challenge demonstrates intelligence, rather than recall and specialised knowledge in ‘highbrow’ subjects. Reading 19th century novels, having a smattering of Greek and Latin, and knowing an Old Master when you see one are not indicators of intelligence, but combined with a quick buzzer finger, they are good grounding for the questions which make up the majority of the program’s trivia bank.

This doesn’t mean an automatic preference for teams from Oxbridge colleges either. Though the last few finals have been light on dark blue affairs, with a too-good-to-be-true proximity to the Boat Race in the TV schedules, the talking point when I was a contestant was the sterile domination of Manchester, with their teams well-drilled by Stephen Pearson, the so-called ‘Alex Ferguson of quiz’. Manchester, Oxford, Cambridge and Warwick are the four British universities most active in what passes for the university quizzing ‘scene’, the largely underground fraternity of student societies whose competitions form a sort of training ground for appearing on University Challenge, and are one of the reasons why those institutions are consistently successful. The quizzing community was undoubtedly dominated by men when I was part of it, and I assume it still is. But the suggestion that it is actively discriminatory towards women joining is far off the mark. I had the rather quixotic title of social secretary for the Oxford University Quiz Society, so I was acutely aware of the preponderance of men involved with quizzing. I can sympathise with Emma Johnson of Corpus Christi when she says that being the only woman in a room of 40 sweatily competitive men is an unnerving one, but she identifies the crux of quizzing’s gender gap: it is a particularly male pursuit. If the BBC broadcast a show every Monday which featured competitive stamp-collecting or model railway building, the proportion of women competing would be just as low, if not lower.

Looking at other hard-as-nails quizzes in the UK shows you how male an activity it is, even ones without the emphasis on competitive buzzer-racing, which is sometimes cited as a reason for the testosterone overload. The proportion of female winners of Brain Of Britain is only just over 10%, as is Only Connect. Cuddly Countdown is even lower. University Challenge and its enthusiastic, well-meaning contestants shouldn’t be made punching bags for a wider trend.

Quotas are not the answer. Comedy panel shows aren’t analogous because the difficulty isn’t in getting women’s voices heard in the first place (though I do wonder if men are more comfortable interrupting Jeremy Paxman), and quotas detract from the quality of the competition, though some action may need to be taken before we approach the University Challenge singularity where the contestants are able to answer every single question before the audience even knows what is being asked.

For all this, there is a simple answer to the question of ‘where are the women in University Challenge?’ and it is: doing more important things than indulging in a strain of male obsessiveness. During my year on the show, both the president and vice-president of my college’s undergraduate body were women. They were both implausibly multilingual, multitalented and academic high-flyers, even by Oxford standards. I found them personally inspiring, and so the idea that my meagre efforts could be compared to them, or be held as a superior measure of ‘intelligence’, seemed very wrong. The debate about the show sometimes feels less like one about intelligence, but the leftover idea that television exposure equals importance. Students, male and female, accomplish so many incredible things out of sight of the TV cameras, and there is plenty of scope to highlight that outside of a stuffy quiz show. I was fortunate enough to know fellow students across different universities who completed Ironman triathlons, were presidents of comedy revues, and were prolific charity fundraisers. Determined and engaged beyond their years, they were the true cream of the crop. They will go on to change or better the world, whereas I am more likely to shuffle off a bar stool, having won a tenner in a two-bit pub quiz, to throw darts at a board with Ralph Morley’s face stapled to it.

Which brings me to one area where Eve delivers the nail precisely to the head. My series was the last one before Twitter, second screening, and the wider conversation around the show across social media really took off, but it was there to a degree. I don’t think anyone can ever knock me off my perch as succinctly as one Twitter user who stated: “every time i watch university challenge that cunt beer is on it”. No-one ever treated me as a sex object though, which was the fate reserved for the women we competed against. They were either attacked for not being good-looking enough to be on TV, or, if the Twitter hivemind decided they were attractive, then they were reminded of that fact, repeatedly.

Part of the casting process for University Challenge involves being interviewed as a team by the producers so they can assess if you are comfortable with the pressure of a televised environment. TV is one thing, Twitter is quite another. Television and Twitter are now part of an amorphous double-world, where each feeds off the other. Most Twitter commentary on University Challenge is light-hearted and supportive of the contestants. Yet I can’t help but feel it is only a matter of time before someone reads too much into unpleasant messages and takes it badly, given that it is fairly easy to track down a contestant online once the show has finished. Let’s not forget the bulk of University Challenge contestants are only a couple of years too old to fall under the BBC’s Child Protection Policy. If you have been hothoused in academic environments your whole life, the sudden exposure can be a shock. In that environment, I can perfectly understand why women in particular would be less inclined to take part. While I’m sure the BBC does all it can in providing a duty of care to their contestants, they and other TV channels should be wary of stirring the online conversation in search of publicity, lest they are unable to control the consequences.

If we as Monday night masochists still crave a slice of competitive quizzing, we will probably have to accept that more men will appear on screen than women. The danger may not be in failing to get more women to take part, but failing to take care of the ones that do.