Belfast Telegraph

Miriam’s victory against the BBC means all women should be valued

By Jane Graham

Watching the usually tough go-getter Miriam O’Reilly break down during the Press conference she held in the wake of her successful age discrimination suit against the BBC this week, I realised the significance of her victory. And suddenly I struggled not to cry myself.

The fact that the man I was watching it with shook his head at her lack of self-control and said, “How could the courts prove she just wasn’t up to the job?” simply multiplied my emotional support for O’Reilly’s cause, and my empathy for her broken heart.

It’s quite clear, and has been for a long time, that older women in front of the camera are treated with all the respect of a chomping rat in a rubbish bin — they’re simply shooed away with a disgusted wrinkle of the nose and expected to shirk off in embarrassed disgrace.

TV managers — both men and women — generally regard women veering towards 50 as dangerously over-wrought, lacking in authority and just not nice to look at.

I’ve worked at the BBC myself, and heard those opinions, or their widely understood euphemisms (‘not target audience’, ‘not our demographic’ etc) a few times. And for the most part, when those opinions were expressed, the women in the room, including myself, silently colluded — possibly because we were all aware of our own growing vulnerability.

That’s why I applaud Miriam O’Reilly (pictured below). Not just for her righteous protest (as the only one of FOUR 40-something female presenters axed from the new primetime Countryfile to fight the good fight) but also for her tears, as much as men might mock them.

I think her impassioned outpouring at that Press conference underlined how the matter of age discrimination sheds light on a bigger, more profound issue — how women are taught to value themselves, and their own concerns, less and less as they grow up.

Unlike men who become fathers — virile providers and protectors — women who become mothers are immediately diminished in the culture surrounding us.

Employers see us as less committed, less reliable, perhaps less capable of focussing on the job at hand.

Men — strangers, friends, colleagues — often see us as ‘spoilt goods’, unlikely to be able to contribute meaningfully to any discussion which does not centre around babies (oh, how I have enjoyed rising to THAT challenge over the years!).

The media treats celebrity mothers as women who are to be applauded for getting their figures back, but rarely as sex symbols, not in the Beyonce, Rhianna, Cheryl mould.

That’s because becoming a mother is seen as a sign that you are leaving behind all the things which the media most values in a female — availability, a lack of emotional baggage and naturally full boobs.

In other words, you’re getting older. Any day now you’ll be menopausal, shaky, insecure, hysterical. Turn your attention to your family, lady, you’re just not worth as much to the rest of us anymore.

As a woman overflowing with passionate (and, I think, articulate) responses to politics, art and any other number of contemporary subjects, the feeling that I am on the verge of being increasingly less respected, that I have to push myself into the conversation and perhaps make mincemeat of the alpha male in the room before I’m taken seriously, is deeply frustrating. It makes me angry and scared.

I’m not ready to be discarded yet.

And I’m so glad that Miriam O’Reilly wasn’t either.

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