Tuesday, 26 July 2016

University Challenge's Woman Problem

Once again, University Challenge is in the news due to online abuse of a woman participant, this time due to people thinking that the contestant's exact gender history was in any way relevant to her barnstorming performance. Despite the article trying to make out that similar things happen to guy contestants, it's clear that it overwhelmingly affects women and girls (Daily Mail link, sorry).

So why do I care?

Well, I was on University Challenge three years ago as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed fresher.

It's obvious which I am, isn't it? And that's why we should be applauding Sophie Rudd and her team from Warwick for being one of the few teams I've ever seen with two guys and two girls on it. Despite the fact that the programme team freely admit that teams with more women on them will be more likely to make it to the televised rounds, it's incredibly difficult to select teams with anything approaching gender equality. In the two years I selected the teams, despite a whole lot of positive discrimination, out of a total of ten team members (four and a reserve in each case) there was only one woman. Women just don't try out for University Challenge in anywhere near the numbers that men do.

There are no doubt some structural societal reasons why this is the case (little girls are less encouraged to be fact-collecters than boys, the way we look at little girls who answer questions in class as know-it-alls, and so on) but I can't help but think that a worry about being abused online holds some women back from applying.

It's definitely something I worried about. By the end of the match our score wasn't very much higher than in picture above, taken before the start. I was only just about holding back the tears and was praying to any deity that would listen that the camera wouldn't focus on me - not out of a fear of looking bad to my friends and family, but from worries that a certain part of the Twittersphere would pounce on me. Not only that, but there was one woman on the team we played, and in the televised broadcast the way the program was edited seemed to encourage comparison of the two of us. As it happened, when I got the guts to Google my name a few days after the show aired, there had been nothing.

It would be remiss of me to ignore in this post that much of the abuse of Rudd focussed on her supposed trans identity. I have no idea if she is trans, which is why I haven't focussed on that myself. It's also am issue I feel very unqualified to talk about but I'm doing my best. One thing's for sure, though: the particularly hatefully misogynist part of the internet seems to latch onto trans women even more so than cis women. What's more, some people who would normally not seem especially misogynistic seem to think that it's perfectly acceptable for them to cast aspersions about trans women. I've heard otherwise pretty enlightened people talking crap about Caitlyn Jenner. It's the responsibility of all of us to shut down that kind of talk when we see or hear it.

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