Gender Bending in 140 Characters or Fewer

So a curious thing happened yesterday; the comedian Dara O'Briain suggested that female panellists on BBC shows should be treated the same as male ones, and was reported as having said pretty much the opposite.

The Guardian, for instance, ran with the headline Dara O'Briain hits out at BBC ban on men-only panel shows, opened with his reference to female panellists as appearing to be the "token woman", and the first sizeable blockquote was this one:

"I wish a tenth of the energy that was put into the women-on-panel-shows debate was put into women in computer coding, in which there are hundreds of thousands of jobs in Europe, and 11% of them are done by women."

The quotes are taken from an interview with the Radio Times, and you have to get about seven paragraphs into The Guardian's article before you reach the following:

"I wouldn't have announced it, is what I'd say, because it means Katherine Ryan or Holly Walsh, who've been on millions of times, will suddenly look like the token woman.

"It would have been better if it had evolved without showing your workings, if you know what I mean. Legislating for token women isn't much help."

So actually, he's not 'hitting out' at the BBC's decision no longer to film shows with all-male panels, but at their decision to publicise the policy, which totally undermines its intended outcome, as now it's impossible to know whether female panellists are there on merit, or purely to make up the numbers.

Let's Be Feminists

What does this have to do with Twitter? Well, tweets and headlines have quite a lot in common - in both cases, you're working in a very short space, and you have to try to convey the full meaning of what you're trying to say.

Take this tweet from David Shariatmadari, deputy editor of The Guardian's comment pages and Comment is Free:

The entire tweet is 76 characters; even if he wanted to leave room for comments to be added on indirect retweets, Mr Shariatmadari could still have gone with something like "Women panellists should not be tokenised, says Dara" which, with the link and Guardian reference, would have been 91 characters.

My point is, like The Guardian's headline, his tweet misses the basic premise of Dara O'Briain's comments and actually portrays him as having said the opposite - O'Briain actually says female comedians should be "cherished and nurtured", but without making the audience feel as though they are being forcibly injected into shows, and with recognition of the fact that there are simply far more male comedians.

But the really interesting thing for me, as somebody who works with language and has studied it to a fairly high level, is that Mr Shariatmadari's tweet sounds like it's written not just by a female author, but by a feminist.

Gender and Anti-Male Language

If you've ever seen the word 'mansplaining' used in a tweet, you'll know what I mean; there exists a certain type of feminist who frequently reject any attempt at debate if it comes from a man, and dismiss any expression of opinion as 'mansplaining' - a man trying to patronisingly tell a woman how she should perceive the world.

Part of this whole category of very gender-specific language that has developed is the tendency to refer to the man in any such situation simply as Man, in the same way you might refer to a stray dog simply as Dog - not 'A man', just 'Man', as though his gender is his entire identity.

And in his tweet above, that is exactly what Mr Shariatmadari has done. "Man says men-only panel shows are ok". Nothing else matters, just Dara O'Briain's gender. Not "Comedian says male-only comedy panel shows are ok". Not "BBC should not publicise gender policies, says star". Just "Man says this...".

I challenged Mr Shariatmadari on the grounds that (a) that is not an entirely accurate report of what Mr O'Briain apparently said and (b) either way, he's entitled to hold an opinion on the matter.

Mr Shariatmadari replied: "it is what what he said amounts to, at the moment. And who on earth was saying he's not entitlted to his opinion??"

To be fair, the last 3-4 paragraphs of The Guardian's article do throw in some balancing sections of quote, and nobody said he's not entitled to an opinion, it's just implicit in the reporting, the prominent and repeated use of the phrase 'token woman', the feminist-style tweet.

Am I reading too much into this? Let's see...

Whipping Up a Frenzy

Mr Shariatmadari's tweet has been retweeted six times so far - not a record-breaker, admittedly, but then it was only one comment on a published article, not The Guardian's own tweet of the article, or anything like that.

Its retweeters are named Allison, Sue, Annie, Sonya, Maya and Kira. It has also been favourited by me (for the purposes of writing this post), Jane, and somebody calling themselves Dragon Tongue, whose gender I'm not sure on.

It's also had two replies, firstly:

(So it seems I'm not the only one who's picked up on the curious choice of wording in Mr Shariatmadari's tweet, which I personally suspect was written that way purely to invoke a feminist frenzy)

and secondly:

Because hey, yes, why not?! University Challenge has teams, they're contestants rather than panellists, but why not throw in a gender quota here too? A minimum of one woman per team wouldn't really cut it though, so how about we go for true equal rights, two women per team and two men?

Although then of course you get male-only and female-only colleges at some of the older universities... do we allow an exemption there?

If so, what about universities that specialise in subject areas that are not traditionally that popular among female students? If 75% of your intake are male, should you be allowed three male contestants on University Challenge, instead of two? What if 90% of your intake are male, do you still have to choose your 'token woman' from the remaining 10%?

These are important questions at a time when we're actually pretty close to achieving gender equality in areas such as these, even if it doesn't feel as though we are.

But if the fact that University Challenge had an all-male line-up this week makes you think there is still progress to be made, then let's look at the entry requirements of the two universities that appeared.

First up, Southampton, who ran try-outs in October 2013. These were held over two days, with the highest scorers going through to a second elimination round before the team was finally chosen.

Next, Somerville College Oxford, who sounded almost apologetic that their gender-impartial selection process had led to an all-male team for this series:

"Everyone agrees that it is unfortunate that we didn't have any women on our team, we would have loved for there to have been a few. It just so happens that this year, the best four candidates were men, but this should not be allowed to overshadow the many other fronts on which Somerville women are taking the lead, within both the College and the university.

"The last two JCR Presidents were both women, last year's editor of the Oxford Student newspaper was a Somerville woman and more than 60% of first-class degrees attained by Somerville students in the last academic year were obtained by women, including the very top degree in Experimental Psychology. There is no need to worry that Somerville is no longer a place where women are given the opportunity and encouragement to rise to a great number of challenges."
- Marsha Sudar, JCR President during selection process

Of the ten-paragraph post to which I refer above, three paragraphs - among the longest in the piece - are given to arbitrarily listing the achievements of female Somerville students past and present, as though their all-male University Challenge team is somehow an embarrassment, despite having been picked fairly using a gender-neutral process.

Where We're At

So this, once again, is the state of play. Men can no longer achieve anything without it being assumed that they have stepped on women to get there; women who genuinely achieve anything on merit are perceived as having been handed their place by policy and quotas. We all lose.

And meanwhile, there's a whole meta-language springing up to imply that people are sexist even when they are directly calling for gender equality in real terms, and not just based on a quota system.

It's sad to see the abuse of words in this way, the twisting or outright suppression of reasonable opinions, and the stifling of open dialogue between people of both genders who are keen to see true gender equality achieved in a meaningful way.