Photo: University Challenge

A University Challenge contestant faced sexism on social media

And we still ask ourselves why it’s a male-dominated show…

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By Amy Jones on

I was 22 and in my first job out of university when my boss first commented on my boobs. We were leaving my first-ever presentation to a client, when he casually glanced down at me – and by me, I mean my chest.

“I was going to mention how much cleavage you had on show and ask you to cover up next time, but actually I think it would draw more attention to them if you wore a high neckline,” he said, casually. I had poured my heart into this presentation, but apparently the thing that was most noteworthy about it was that I’d given it in a body that had two sacks of yellow fat stuck on the front of it.

While I left that attitude behind me when I left that job, it’s one that’s still prevalent on social media. The chat surrounding University Challenge is a prime example. On Monday, Katherine Perry competed on the show for Pembroke College. She answered several questions correctly, which is unsurprising considering she has a degree in theology from Oxford, a masters from Cambridge and is currently studying for a PhD while lecturing on subjects such as New Testament Greek and cognitive linguistics. She is, by all accounts, an incredibly intelligent, accomplished woman – yet social media was full of people discussing her perfectly normal V-necked top and the several inches of cleavage you could see because of it.

Society is never going to fully benefit from the skills, wisdom and talent these clever women possess until they can stop being so distracted by the packaging they’re contained in

This isn’t the first time that a brilliant woman on University Challenge has been reduced to her looks. In 2009, Gail Trimble, nicknamed the “human Google”, won the University Challenge cup for Corpus Christi, Oxford, and was almost immediately approached to do photoshoots in lads’ mags. Last year, medical student Emma Johnson was described as “the hottest contestant ever” and sent marriage proposals because she competed on the show while looking pretty and wearing red lipstick, while, in the same year, contestant Sophie Rudd from Warwick was subjected to hideous amounts of transphobic abuse. Last month, Freya Whiteford competed on the show – and won! – but all viewers could do was make fun of her long, thick hair.

In 2015, Jeremy Paxman expressed confusion at the fact that there were no female contestants in the final. When they’re treated like this, is it really a surprise? Yes, the male contestants of University Challenge do occasionally get comments about their appearance, but the comments are far less frequent, far less vicious, and I doubt that Eric Monkman was offered a beefcake photoshoot after all the discussion over his remarkable eyebrows.

Enough. Katherine Perry’s cleavage is not more interesting than her wealth of theological knowledge. Emma Johnson is not notable because of her blonde hair and red lips, but because of her medical training. The best thing about my presentation was not what my boobs looked like in my only smart dress. Society is never going to fully benefit from the skills, wisdom and talent these clever women possess until they can stop being so distracted by the packaging they’re contained in.


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Photo: University Challenge
Tagged in:
Sexism in the media
gender equality

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