Older women are subject to “lookism” at the BBC, even on the radio, while men are allowed to age gracefully, the broadcaster Libby Purves has said.
Purves, who presented Radio 4’s Midweek from 1983 until it was dropped in 2017, said the corporation had a problem with older women as they were under more pressure to appear attractive and youthful.
While a number of older male broadcasters, including Melvyn Bragg, David Attenborough and John Humphrys, held high-ranking positions well into their 70s, female presenters struggle to have as substantial and long-lasting careers, she wrote in an opinion piece for the Radio Times.
“Sue Barker has been binned from A Question of Sport after 23 years. She is 64. More willingly, Jenni Murray and Jane Garvey depart from Woman’s Hour, aged 70 and 56. They are replaced by Emma Barnett, a mere 35. What is this? Does the BBC have a problem with older women? Are we written off as old trouts while men become revered elders, sacred patriarchs, silver foxes?” Purves asked.
Purves, 70, said lookism had long been an issue on TV, where people are often intolerant of presenters who are not attractive and young. She said presenters aged over 50 must look youthful and work hard to do so, but their male colleagues do not need to follow suit.
This did not used to be as big an issue for radio presenters, but the use of video clips on social media and photography on the BBC Sounds app has made radio more visual, she added.
“The middle-aged female must struggle to look youthful. The nearly 50-something Zoe Ball flicks designedly youthful hair, Lauren Laverne looks 25, not 42, and Mishal Husain is basically a goddess anyway.”
Emma Twyning, the head of communications at the Centre for Ageing Better, said: “Ageism can have a huge impact on anyone in later life, with negative stereotypes about older people rife in our society. But we know that women face a ‘double jeopardy’ of discrimination as they get older where ageing for women is often seen much more negatively than for men.
“The media generally reinforces age-related stereotypes and unrealistic expectations of women – we need much greater and more realistic representation of the huge diversity of people and experiences that exist in society – at all ages.”
Caroline Abrahams, the charity director for Age UK, said: “It seems that in some walks of life, including acting and TV, ageism and sexism combine to end the careers of some extremely talented older women. This is not only a shame for them but for the rest of us too, because it leads to an unbalanced portrayal of the world we live in that hugely understates the role and contribution of older people generally and of older women above all. No one deserves to be written off because of their age and the sooner that becomes the universal norm the better.”
A BBC spokesperson said: “We choose presenters based on who best fits our audiences and we are proud to have a diverse range of women presenters across TV and radio – from Mary Berry to Martha Kearney, Carol Klein to Andrea Oliver and Mary Beard to Kirsty Wark.”
On Barker’s departure from A Question of Sport, the spokesperson said: “We would like to thank Sue for her enormous contribution as the show’s longest-reigning host over the last 24 years, and Matt and Phil for their excellent team captaincy over 16 and 12 years respectively. Together they have ensured A Question of Sport remains a firm favourite with the BBC One audience. Sue, Matt and Phil’s final series will be broadcast next year.”