Belfast Telegraph

Sadly Mary Beard is right, the fair sex have to sink low to get ahead

By Jane Graham

Her sartorial choices may grate with the impeccably groomed AA Gill, though personally I've always been more convinced by TV experts who look like they're so fixated with classical history/astronomical revelation/shrubbery, they've forgotten to brush their hair. But Professor Mary Beard is right. Probably about the Homeric roots of excluding women from civic debate. And definitely about squeaky women being told to shut up.

Beard (such an ironic name) has had the usual eye-rolling derision for her suggestion that women with higher pitched voices than men (ie virtually all of us) struggle to be taken as seriously in public life as men with normal, masculine pitches.

Unfortunately, by refusing to be grateful for the crumb of indulgence she was generously gifted when she first spoke up about sexism on TV, Beard now has a reputation as a perpetual moaner, a nag.

Great word that, nag. It means a woman who doesn't drop her complaint or withdraw her advice after being ignored the first time. It can sometimes be replaced by "assertive person who believes in something". But only when the person in question is male.

Writing in this week's Radio Times, Beard said that the power in broadcast media still resided with "men in suits with their deep voices." "Even on radio," she noted, "The successful women presenters tend to have deep (ie male) voices."

In terms of front-of-camera or microphone presenters, I can't see how you could disagree. The big authoritative hitters in "serious" programming – news, current affairs – are either men, or husky-voiced women like Emily Maitlis and Kirsty Wark.

The shows which might be perceived as the greatest tests of a presenter's authority, such as controlling an unruly audience so that important politicians can sloganeer (Question Time) or revealing the new government to the country (the General Election) have yet to put their faith in a woman presenter at all.

Yet even Sue MacGregor, ex Radio 4 Today presenter, and herself blessed with a low-vibration timbre, said she couldn't think what Beard meant. Sue is clearly not a nag. Though she did advise that on radio, "you do have to be careful not to come across as high-pitched".

Thanks for the advice Sue, but isn't that a bit like saying, try not to be blonde? How does a normal, "high-pitched" woman get round that? Perhaps she should do an Alan Partridge, and force her voice down a key whenever it begins to sound excessively feminine, half way through the odd sentence.

Society was taught long ago that higher pitched voices imply less competent human beings. (Maybe when beardy cavemen were wrestling with bears for meat, only to be met with a shriek of "Not bleeding rabbit again!" from their ungrateful wives when they got home.) According to 2009 research, lower pitches are still widely associated, among both genders, with dominance, maturity, and honesty.

It's why Margaret Thatcher worked hard to go deeper and probably explains the onslaught of cat-calling and hilarious vocal impressions which drown out female MPs when they attempt to speak in the Commons. And the ton of abuse which has met the bellows of some female tennis players, even though both Nadal and Djokovic both also grunt, louder but in a lower register.

As a wireless junkie I often dreamt of being a radio presenter. But when I joined Radio 1 in my early 20s, I quickly realised Jo Whiley, Annie Nightingale and Mary-Anne Hobbs all had something I never would. (Yes, as well as talent, be quiet at the back.)

Never mind, I have a great voice for writing.

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