University Challenge introduces “gender neutral” questions to encourage more female contestants

Photo: BBC

University Challenge has announced that it hopes to encourage more women to compete on the show by introducing “gender neutral” questions.

The move comes after complaints from the public about the lack of questions about women.

Executive producer Peter Gwyn said: “When a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained few questions on women, we agreed and decided to rectify it.

We try to ensure that when hearing a question, we don’t have any sense of whether it was written by a man or a woman, just as questions should never sound as if they are directed more at men than women.”

He said that while the programme “will always do everything” to encourage more women to participate, “ultimately […] the makeup of each team is decided by the university it represents.”

In 2017, the Telegraph reported that even though women in the UK are 35% more likely than men to go to university, 95% of finalists over the past five years have been men.

While the show itself has been criticised for the bias of its questions, several female previous participants have cited online abuse as the biggest barrier to women wanting to compete.

Rose McKeown, who was on the winning team of St John’s, Cambridge, spoke out against the “hostility that some female contestants are subjected to on social media” but said there was also “an issue with women underestimating themselves and being hesitant to try out for the show.”

New Statesman’s Anna Leszkiewicz told this week’s Radio Times: “Female contestants have repeatedly experienced abuse and objectification after their appearances, from Gail Trimble in 2009 to Katharine Perry in the current series, with a host of others in between.

“It’s easy to dismiss these cyclical sexism rows as manufactured outrage, but University Challenge is a British institution that reaches millions of people each week.”

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Meanwhile, Professor Mary Beard told the Guardian: “Much as I love University Challenge, and ready as I am to sniff out sexism… I do sometimes wonder if women think they have better uses for their intelligence than quiz shows.”

There have also been efforts within colleges to improve female representation on the show, with Wadham setting up trials exclusively for women to ensure at least one woman was selected.

After a few weeks however, the college’s student committee decided to scrap the policy for fear that choosing a weaker female candidate over a stronger male one would appear “tokenistic”.