Is Sexism Endemic at the BBC?

When will the BBC start taking male politicians seriously based on what they say rather than what they wear?

In Andrew Marr’s weekly current affairs television programme last Sunday, he interviewed Yanis Varoufakis to discuss the impending disaster of Greece defaulting on its debt repayments to the European Union. In his preamble to the interview, Mr Marr introduced this senior Greek politician as “Greece’s leather-jacketed Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis”, in defiance of the fact Mr Varoufakis was not actually wearing his leather jacket at the time. Is it not shameful that the BBC should pay so much attention to the sartorial habits of male politicians? After all, men do have brains too, and often have important contributions to make to the political life of a nation. They are not just eye-candy existing solely to decorate our television screens, and deserve to be treated with the same respect as female politicians.

One cannot help but wonder what the reaction would have been if he had introduced “the leopard-shod Home Secretary, Theresa May”, “the trouser-wearing Acting Leader of the Labour Party, Harriet Harman”, or the “short-skirted Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper”. I am sure Ms Cooper would not wear a short skirt on television, or at least I couldn’t find a photograph, but I am sure you get my point!

So come on, BBC, you wouldn’t dare criticise the way a female politician was dressed, even if she defied convention by wearing trousers at such a traditional occasion as the State Opening of Parliament: what makes you think it’s appropriate to comment on the dress of a foreign Finance Minister? I shudder to think what the reaction of your commentator would have been if David Cameron had been equally “liberated” and had walked beside Ms Harman wearing an open-necked shirt.

Is sexism endemic at the BBC? Perhaps it is.

Why are female politicians criticised for what they wear?

attribution:Presidenza della Repubblica [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

This comes up time and time again. Newspapers and other media are vilified by feminists for commenting on the way female politicians, newsreaders and others are dressed, whilst leaving the men in peace. Why is this? Is it an example of the “objectification” of women, as we are led to believe?

I would suggest that, if you take off the women-are-always-the-victims blinkers for a moment, the  reason is obvious. In terms of dress, the women are treated like adults and given great freedom in what they wear. If you have choice, you can expect to attract comment. The men in the photograph above, however, are forced, either by gender stereotyped dress codes, or by social pressure, to wear their school uniform. Look closely at the photograph and the uniform is evident: dark suit, light shirt, and, of course, tie. Even the most desperate of newspaper editors can’t criticise someone for wearing their school uniform.

Now let us look at another example. This is a photograph of the G8 Summit of 2013. Perhaps you can remember what the media had to say about the natty little number that Angela Merkel is wearing.


The answer, of course, is that she was completely ignored. The men, however, were vilified. Why? They were mauled by the press because this group of the most economically powerful men in the world got together the night before and said something along the lines of “it’s going to be hot tomorrow, lads, let’s not wear ties”!

This brings us to the point of this post. Male politicians escape being criticised for their dress only if they toe the line and stick scrupulously to the school uniform. The moment they stray, however slightly, from the stereotyped image of the uniform male, they are berated like children.

We saw the same thing more recently following the Greek election. On my way home from work, I heard four different radio news items, each of which started off with words to the effect of “the new Greek Prime Minister, who was not wearing a tie…” And again when the Greek Finance Minister met George Osborne, there was a photograph on the front page of at least one national broadsheet with a caption pointing out, not the subject of the meeting, but the fact that he was wearing a leather jacket and black boots. And, of course, no tie.


There are many other examples of cases where high-profile men have been criticised for simply not wearing a tie. The simple fact of the matter is that the different treatment of men and women by the media, at least as far as dress goes, arises not from sexism victimising women, but from the deep-rooted discrimination leading to the fact that “serious” men are given no freedom of choice and are expected to dress more formally and uniformly than women. This discrimination extends way beyond politicians and is still evident in many workplaces.

If female politicians all wore a dark suit and smart blouse, or men were allowed the freedom of choice given to women, there would, after a brief period of hysterical astonishment, be no issue.

Finally, it is worth remembering that women MPs can, and do, wear pretty much what they like in the House of Commons. My MP, a man, can be thrown out and prevented from representing me in parliament if he doesn’t wear a jacket and tie. So much for democracy and equality.