I haven’t commented on this with the flood of other recent comments because I wanted to take time to think this over. If you haven’t seen the news recently Sky at Night presenter Patrick Moore has complained about banal television programmes and then blamed the fall in quality TV on women becoming bosses.
It’s a big disappointment. It would be an exaggeration to say Astronomy IS Patrick Moore in the UK, but he is an enormous influence. It’s likely that if he hadn’t been the presenter of Sky at Night for fifty years that the programme would have been repurposed like Tomorrow’s World. So I’ve been taking time trying to make sense of why he’d say such a thing and it’s difficult. I’m not eager to believe that he is so badly wrong. What makes it more difficult there aren’t really any mitigating factors and that he’s almost right.
TV in the UK is getting worse. The BBC who give us Sky at Night also give us The Perfect Housewife, a show where women compete to show how much they can learn about looking after the man in their life. Much daytime TV is awful and aimed at the woman who looks after the house while her man works. It’s the market advertisers want. This is why CILLIT BANG! is advertised as the HOUSEWIVES’ CHOICE. There is a push for a specific section of the female audience. If this had been his complaint I’d agree with him – but it’s not. He blames women getting control of TV scheduling.
That’s not a sustainable argument. True some of the producers are female, but also some of the are male and the big names in TV still tend to be male. It is at least as plausible that these programmes are aimed at a male idea of what a woman wants. Further, female-led television doesn’t have to be braindead. I’m rarely home to watch it, but Loose Women is an odd programme. It’s discussion show that’s often intelligent. This is depsite it being daytime television and on ITV. Yet it’s also very consciously led by the female presenters. It would be nice to be able to say “What Patrick really meant was that televison producers shouldn’t be catering to an outdated male ideal of what a woman should be,” and pretend that he didn’t express himself clearly. Unfortunately you can’t do that when there’s also quotes like:
“I used to watch Doctor Who and Star Trek, but they went PC – making women commanders, that kind of thing. I stopped watching.”
What then do you do if you’re trying to recruit students to a science course? In astronomy it is known that Patrick Moore’s social views are right-wing and don’t reflect the majority of people in the profession. The usual reaction would be to ignore it. In the case of Integrated Sciences we have a fairly even mix of males and females and I can’t recall a single meeting where the students’ sexes have been an issue. One of the advantages of running with small cohorts is that we can think of the students as individuals rather than demographics. If we’re not sexist is there a problem for us?
I think Patrick Moore shows there is. To some extent it doesn’t matter if we’re serious about equal opportunities if the students have already been selected and filtered by the time they get to university level. If there is something positive to come out of this then it shows that it’s not enough for individuals to be non-discriminatory if there are other individuals and systems that are chauvinist or bigoted. Personally I think the best recruitment policy for any university course would be to take the students best suited for it regardless of anything other than talent from a level-playing field. In reality there isn’t a level-playing field and that makes life unnecessarily harder. The female students aren’t stupid and will avoid fields where they think their talent will be unappreciated. This is why it’s important to address Patrick Moore’s comments because discriminating on the basis of gender simply isn’t acceptable.
He’s right about the effect, a lot of television is geared to narrowly sexist stereotypes. It’s such a shame that someone who has had a hugely positive influence on astronomy and science should be so wrong about the cause. Perhaps he should be reminded that before it went PC one of his favourite shows, Doctor Who, was co-created by a woman.
Incidentally, as always, this is my personal opinion. Anyone in Integrated Sciences who thinks The Perfect Housewife is a good TV show is welcome to stick their name below.