Thursday, 5 June 2014

Wanted: BBC Trust Chairman (women need not apply).

* There is currently a bidding war between the BBC & the Sunday Times to publish this piece...

In the spring of 2004 Barbara Cassani, then chair of the London 2012 Olympic bid, successfully led London through to the final five shortlist. In reporting that not insignificant feat the BBC News at Ten referred to Cassani as the bids “Chief Cheerleader”, not once but on two consecutive nights.

Despite her obvious business acumen and talent, the British media, disgruntled it seemed to have an American woman at the helm of the British bid, made her position untenable. After reportedly winning a libel action against the Telegraph, she stepped aside, making way for her successor, Lord Coe, who is now in the running for the position of chair of the BBC Trust, along with another American woman, Marjorie Scardino.

According to the job specification, Scardino appears to be the most qualified of the two (if they apply). Yet, David Cameron is already being warned not to give the job to a woman but to award it on merit, as if the two are mutually exclusive. In the corridors of power, however demonstrably brilliant a woman’s track record, a male (sometimes mediocre) with the right other credentials (class/title, political affiliations, race, old boy club carrying card) will always be the best “man” for the job.

The BBC is in crisis. The rot that enabled a series of debacles that exploded with the Saville scandal and which continue with the ongoing bullying revelations is systemic. More than ever the role of the BBC Trust is to be the conscience of the organisation. The person taking the lead will need to have the moral fortitude, independence of mind and a strong track record in governance (as opposed to the 100 metres) to have any chance of reinstating a semblance of trust in the BBC. The head hunters will need to be creative in their approach and recognise that titled elites, male or female, may not be the best people for the job.

Looking on the appointed head hunter’s website though, I’m not hopeful. Groupthink and faulty decisions are the product of homogeneity, a core factor, I believe, in the BBC’s downfall. Yet, of the 21 listed employees, the 18 pictures I could see were all white with the co-founder boasting having worked in Whitehall. It doesn’t bode well, in my view, for finding a wide rage of diverse talent from which to choose an outstanding candidate.

The Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, and the BBC should know that, when outsourcing contracts to external parties they are obliged to ask for evidence of their adherence to Equality legislation. I wouldn’t have thought that an apparently all white head hunter in London, where 10% of the population is BME, would make the grade. The Culture secretary, the BBC and the head hunters themselves should also be aware of their duty to promote gender equality under the Sex Discrimination Act (SDA). It’s not enough to be seen to remove barriers to gender equality, they must actively promote and encourage it. The advertisement for the position falls at the fist hurdle with the title, Chairman. Subtext (whether intentional or not), women need not apply. As part of the SDA’s duty to remove barriers and promote gender equality, gender neutral language would be an absolute minimum requirement.

Ten years ago I conducted research into the impact of testosterone charged images and language used in advertising for leadership positions. I tracked several adverts and followed up on the appointments, all of which were men. In some cases, no women even applied. The advert that spurred my action was the following: What Turns Businessmen on: DOMINATION?

This advert appeared regularly in The Sunday Times “Appointments” section during the summer of 2004. When I first encountered it, I felt as though, as a woman, I was a non-person. Like a waitress at a free mason’s ball, with Bernard Manning as the guest speaker. You may say the newspaper was merely employing the term ‘businessmen’ as a universally understood euphemism for business people of both sexes. You might also brush off the concept of ‘being turned on by domination’ as a vaguely humorous and largely innocuous turn of phrase that underlines the newspaper’s attractiveness for recruitment advertising. And indeed, this was how the Sunday Times defended its use of language to the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) when I lodged a complaint. However, when viewed as a strategy of dismissal, we can begin to understand how such language contributes to the marginalization of women at work. It does so by portraying the business arena as an inherently “man’s world”. The complaint was upheld.

Encouraging the use of gender-neutral language is an unashamed and totally legitimate act of political correctness. Many titles, such as ‘chairman’ and ‘businessman’, are so culturally imbued that they are not recognised for what they are, i.e. symbols of a masculinised business paradigm. Examining language within the social constructivist paradigm, as I do, it would be fatuous not to acknowledge the political aspect and the power it wields. Language does not simply reflect reality (i.e. that the majority of chair or business people are men) but constructs and perpetuates it (i.e. “that’s the norm” and “lets keep it that way”).

The discourse of the dominant sets out different rules for those with and without power. Language, which itself can be understood to be constitutive of both knowledge and power, is hijacked to legitimise what is deemed mere “common sense”. Protestations that serve to challenge this rationality are ridiculed and labelled as “radical”. Some media very deliberately choose their language to enflame prejudice by playing on people’s fears, inciting outrage at the very thought of introducing positive discrimination to attract black recruits to the police, for example.

The fact is that positive discrimination has existed for years. The metaphorical tap on the shoulder and old boys’ networks are all practices so institutionalised that we take them for granted. Those who profit from privilege accept such benefits as their birth-right, and are the ones who have the most to lose if these unwritten rules are exposed by the critical scrutiny of language.

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