Those of you who are familiar with popular nocturnal emissions in the U. of K. will no doubt have fallen over been aware of Strictly Come Chav Factor, a kind of pro-celebrity ballroom dancing competition. The pirouetting couples are judged by a panel of professional dancers and choreographers – three men, and one woman. Initially, the female panellist was Arlene Phillips (67) but no tokenist sop she: Ms Phillips is a professional choreographer and theatre director of many years’ experience. After a few series, however, Ms Phillips was replaced by the female winner of a previous series, the singer Alesha Dixon (32), who, while talented in many respects, hardly holds a candle to Ms Phillips as a dance judge.
At the time – and I still do – I suspect ageism was at work here (many other people felt the same, including the then minister Harridan Harperson who raised the matter in parliament), and the suspicion is strong, Master Luke, that TV producers are keen to trade ladies of a certain age for younger models. If Strictly’s Got Talent didn’t have a token woman before, they certainly do now. The BBC has strongly denied that Ms Phillips was replaced by virtue of her age – but has given no other reason.
Now, there has been much discussion in these fora about gender equality and how to achieve it (see this recent post from Steve, and many posts on Jenny’s blog and Athene’s blog) but very little about the interaction between age and gender. On 11 January, I contracted collected a copy of the Evening Standard (a newspaper which can be picked up for free outside any major London station – notwithstanding inasmuch as which the reader can draw their own conclusions). The lead story was all about TV presenter Miriam O’Reilly (53) who had filed for discrimination on the basis of age against the BBC who had removed her from its show Countryfile (an emission of which I’d had no previous knowledge). An industrial tribunal upheld her allegation of ageism, stating that Ms O’Reilly would have been given ‘proper consideration’ if she had been ’10 to 15 years younger’. Deny it all it likes, but Auntie does seem to be Ageist.
Now, before one imagines that the BBC is controlled entirely by scheming men whose ambition is to replace trout with totty, the focus of blame was former BBC1 controller Jay Hunt (43), a female person of the opposite sex, who was (to quote the story) ‘forced to deny claims that she hated women’. ‘I am a 43-year-old woman and I have had my own difficulties surviving in this industry’ Ms Hunt is reported as saying: ‘The last thing I would ever do is discriminate on the basis of gender or age’.
What is one to make of this? Overheated competition between women struggling to keep a toehold in a male-dominated industry? Possibly.
But there is another issue, and that is self-confidence, an issue raised in Athene Donald’s latest effusion. Quite apart from the glamorous spotlights of televisual production, the employment market is full of Ladies of a Certain Age who, having perhaps had breaks in their careers of a nature and duration not enjoyed by men, lack a certain amount of confidence when confronted by the prospect of returning to the job market.
Given that I am now a Gentleman of a Certain Age, whose children are just about to pass the embryonic stage and become largely self-propelled, I meet many People Of Both Sexes Of A Certain Age in the same position. Mrs Crox (46), for example, is just about to be made redundant, and worries that, at her age, she’ll be all washed up, and that preference will be given to younger people. How do Ladies of a Certain Age get back into the job market? Now, I have a sneaking suspicion that employers, if they are wise, should apply a kind of positive discrimination as regards age. Older women will, simply by virtue of age, have more experience of life than younger women. The male-chauvinist cynic in me says that older women are less likely to have problems with boyfriends, to get married, to get pregnant and demand maternity leave. Sexist? Oh, yes, definitely – but until government and corporations see parenthood as a gender-neutral, employers will see facts on the ground, not as people would like them to be.
Some issues of confidence revolve around training. Women returning after long career breaks might be worried about improvements in technology (this video clip, while short, speaks volumes). But as I advise scientists who put competence in using lab equipment above honing one’s skills as a writer, any fool can be taught to press buttons. In my view, older people – of both sexes – have a great deal to contribute. As people live longer, stay healthier, and retire later (if at all – I have no plans to retire, they’ll have to drag me out of here in a box). But women, who might feel rusty after a career break, should be especially encouraged. There could be a reason why women live for decades after menopause, and live longer than men in overalls overall. Although nobody really knows what that reason is, it is something for which we all should be grateful, and if we underestimate it, the loss will fall to all of us.