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Home arrow History arrow Behind the Wireless: A History of Early Women at the BBC

Epilogue: A Brief Encounter with 90 Further Years

Volumes could be written about the women at the BBC post-1939; these few pages offer just a glimpse of significant changes and individuals; the seeds of further research.

The Second World War, like the First, was a time of great fluctuation for women in the UK, particularly in relation to work.1 At the BBC, as thousands of men were called up, women took over essential jobs, most strikingly as engineers. An Engineering Training School opened in May 1941, the first seven female trainees arriving the following month. By the end of the war more than 800 women would pass through its doors, being deployed first on maintenance and programme work and later at transmission stations. Sir Noel Ashbridge, the BBC’s Chief Engineer, declared in The BBC Year Book for 1943, that ‘the experiment of recruiting women and training them for technical work has been an undoubted success’.2 The BBC more than doubled in size during the war creating an urgent need for more support staff. However, the introduction of conscription for single women (aged between 20 and 30) in December 1941 meant there was a severe shortage of ‘suitable’ secretarial recruits. As a result a Secretarial Training School was established in February 1942, its aim, ‘to convert a mere typist into an instructed and enthusiastic employee

  • 1 There are many books on women and work in the Second World War, see particularly Penny Summerfield (1989) Women Workers in the Second World War: Production and Patriarchy in Conflict (London: Routledge).
  • 2 BBC Year Book, 1943, p.88.

© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2016 K. Murphy, Behind the Wireless,

DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-49173-2

of the Corporation’.[1] Another new and vital area of work was the BBC’s Monitoring Service, based at Caversham near Reading. Hundreds of female linguists arrived, many of whom were mothers, and because of the need for 24 hour working, a full-time creche was opened in 1943 at nearby Sonning Manor.

The expansion of the BBC’s overseas services also created new opportunities for women. Una Marson, a Jamaican, was the first black woman to join the BBC staff in March 1941 (she had briefly worked before the war on a contract basis as a researcher for the TV programme Picture Book).[2] Marson was employed as a Programme Assistant on Calling the West Indies but also, in 1943, developed the long-running literary series Caribbean Voices (although Marson would leave the BBC in 1945). Cecelia Reeves, who had been one of Isa Benzie’s Assistants in the Foreign Department, played a key role in the French Service. As Senior Talks Assistant she coordinated the team of French broadcasters from London, including Jacques Duchesne. Reeves was one of a number of women who rose to senior positions in the External/World Service after the war. She became the BBC’s Paris Representative in 1947, a position she held for 20 years.

The Television Service was shut down at the outbreak of war. Elizabeth Cowell, a former TV Hostess, joined the growing band of women who were now accepted as radio announcers. Margery Anderson, Jean Metcalfe, Margaret Hubble, Joan Griffiths and Mary Malcolm, for instance, began their BBC careers at this time. Women’s programmes continued to be an important element of the broadcast schedules, most of which were produced by Janet Quigley. Series such as The Kitchen Front, Wise Housekeeping, Calling the Factory Front and Your Health in Wartime provided essential information as well as boosting morale. [3] Audrey Russell was spotted as a broadcasting talent (she had been working as an auxiliary firewoman) and was recruited to the BBC in June 1942.[4] In 1944, she became the Corporation’s only female accredited war correspondent, covering events in mainland Europe. After the war she gained acclaim as an outside commentator, particularly celebrated for her coverage of the Royal Wedding in 1947. Russell had been prepared to accept unequal pay during the war. However, in peacetime, she complained about her lower earnings and her sidelining into ‘women’s’ issues, a situation rectified when she threatened to resign.[5]

After the war, BBC Monitoring was scaled back, the creche closed and no further female engineers were recruited. Women engineers who wanted to remain, although no longer employed at transmitters, were retained for studio work but with limited options for promotion because ‘they generally did not possess the necessary technical qualifications’. The Secretarial Training School, however, was bolstered under its new head, Marian Scott. She held the position until 1967 when the School was merged into General Staff Training. Women’s programming was also strengthened. Woman’s Hour was first broadcast in October 1946, its mix of domesticity, citizenship and escapism reminiscent of the BBC’s pre-war women’s fare.[6] In 1950, Janet Quigley (who had left the BBC on her marriage in 1945) returned as Editor, with Olive Shapley as presenter, two of a sequence of high-powered women who would shape the programme both behind and before the microphone into the present day.[7] [8]

Shapley was to be one of the presenters of women’s programmes on television. Mary Adams, now a Senior Television Producer, devised Designedfor Women, in 1947 which was followed by other series such as For the Housewife and Leisure and Pleasure.10 Doreen Stephens, who joined BBC television in October 1953 as Editor, Women’s Programmes, was the first woman to be directly recruited to a senior post from outside the Corporation since Hilda Matheson.[9] In 1964 the Women’s Unit was merged with children’s programming into a Family Programmes Department; however, by 1967 the ‘women’s’ element had been dropped. Children’s programming had by then been greatly expanded. First with the introduction of Listen with

Mother (the brainchild of Mary Somerville) broadcast on the Light Service from 1950 and second by the creation of a Children’s Programmes department in Television (initiated by Adams) under the headship of Freda Lingstrom in 1951. Children’s television would largely continue to be the domain of women, headed by the likes of Monica Sims, Anna Home and Lorraine Heggessey.

Grace Wyndham Goldie is the best known of all BBC women of the 1950s and 1960s. She moved from Talks Producer, Radio (a post she had been recruited to in 1944) to the position of Talks Producer, Television in October 1948, where her influence would be immense.[10] Amongst her many successes were the pioneering of General Election coverage, the revamping of Panorama, the development of Tonight, the nurturing of Man Alive and the launch of That Was the Week That Was. She also championed the BBC careers of, amongst others, Michael Peacock, Richard Dimbleby, Donald Baverstock, Huw Wheldon and Alasdair Milne. Although there were female members of her team, she was not a great advocate for her sex either on air or within the BBC. She was dismissive of female voices, which she felt lacked authority, although she did later concede that she might have done more to promote women.[11] Goldie retired in 1965 as Head of Talks and Current Affairs, Television. Mary Adams, who became Head of TV Talks in 1948, was initially Goldie’s boss. Adams was then promoted in 1953 to Assistant to the Controller of TV, a post she held until her retirement in 1958. Mary Somerville also took on a new role becoming Assistant Controller of Talks in 1947 and ultimately Controller of Talks in 1950. She retired in 1955. Janet Quigley and Isa Benzie also assumed important roles, Quigley as Chief Assistant and later Assistant Head of Talks. The two women worked on the development of the Today programme which was launched on the Home Service in October 1957. Isa Benzie was its first producer.[12]

Sir Ian Jacobs, interviewed on Woman’s Hour in 1959 (following his retirement as Director General) was asked which single word he would choose to characterise his seven years at the BBC. His reply, ‘Hag ridden!’[13] By the 1960s, the perception of a BBC teeming with high-flying women could no longer be the subject ofjest. Those who had joined the Corporation in the interwar years and risen to positions of authority had largely all left. In 1962, Thelma Cazelet Keir, recently retired as a BBC governor, wrote a letter to The Times headed ‘Senior Posts at the BBC: Why are there so few women?’ They held only four out of 150 top jobs.[14] This lack of women at the top was picked up again in 1968 when Peggy Jay, of the BBC’s General Advisory Committee, requested statistical information about the number of women in senior positions. Management assured her that with regard to selection, where there was no inherent advantage of sex, men and women were given equal consideration.[15] [16]

There were significant developments for women in the 1960s. Joanna Spicer (who had arrived at the BBC in 1941) was promoted to Assistant Controller, Planning in 1963 and later, in 1969, Assistant Controller, Television Development, making her by far the most senior woman in the BBC at this time. 1 8 Although hers was a pivotal strategic role it has been suggested that she was not given the full title ‘Controller’ because she was female. Verity Lambert was the young producer given the task of developing a new programme, Dr Who first transmitted in 1963, the theme music created in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop by Delia Derbyshire. Joan Marsden was employed as a Floor Manager in television, the first and only female to hold this position between 1960 and 1975. Another woman isolated in a male enclave was Yvonne Littlewood, a Light Entertainment producer who, from 1964, worked on programmes such as the Eurovision Song Contest and the Val Doonican Show. Mary Edmond similarly breached a male stronghold of the BBC in 1964 when she was appointed a Duty Editor in the Newsroom. A further advance for women was the extension of the General Trainee Scheme, introduced in 1954 to fast-track outstanding male graduates. From 1960 this was open to young women, although the numbers recruited remained very low.

The General Trainee Scheme was one of the areas of concern pinpointed in Women in Top Jobs published in 1971.[17] The study of the Corporation, carried out by PEP (Political and Economic Planning), confirmed what had by now become obvious to many: the BBC was no longer a progressive institution when it came to the employment of women. They held only 58 out of 1,095 top graded jobs with just one woman (Joanna Spicer) graded ‘A’. Amongst the many reasons identified for women’s poor progress were lack of career development; the appointment boards system; the paucity of female graduates applying for the General Trainee Scheme; the closure of certain parts of the BBC to women such as engineering and technical work and the scarcity of women in areas such as Current Affairs, Sports, Outside Broadcasts and Light Entertainment. Women, it was found, tended to be clustered in sections where they had traditionally done well, such as television and radio production, children’s programmes, schools, further education and make-up. This meant they became typecast with less mobility. While women’s personal attitudes were also seen as contributory, the largest stumbling block was the difficulties inherent in juggling family life with BBC work, particularly raising children. The study concluded ‘the BBC ought not to assume that it has equal opportunities for women, but should examine what it means by equal opportunities. It cannot ignore the longterm consequences of losing or not recruiting high calibre women’.[18]

Women in Top Jobs prompted the Corporation to carry out its own internal survey of female staff. When ‘Women in the BBC’ was presented to the Board of Management in April 1973 it caused shockwaves. The report clarified the scarcity of women in senior posts, just 5 per cent, with miniscule numbers at the very top. In addition it provided ample evidence of widespread misogyny, as Jean Seaton vibrantly depicts in her account of women in the BBC in the 1970s and 80s.[19] Senior managers in Engineering, for example, gave reasons for the unacceptability of women that included their unsuitability to heavy physical work and hazards such as bad weather or working alone, marital problems that might result from men and women working together on remote sites, the fact that they were uneconomic because they resigned for family reasons and their inability to cope with shift patterns as they aged. One manager in television operations was blunt, ‘the majority of men would deep down resent women coming into this area and having equal opportunity. Such a move would threaten male superiority’. Explanations as to why so few secretaries moved into higher positions included views that ranged from being regarded ‘as a piece of inanimate office furniture rather than a member of a team’, that they were ‘destined to be wives and mothers and therefore not suitable for further training and help’ and that ‘a boss with a good secretary doesn’t always encourage her to seek promotion’.

The Board of Management were quick to agree a number of recommendations, particularly that no vacancies should be ‘for men only’ and that women’s potential should be positively encouraged and developed. They also concurred that ways should be found to make it easier for women to combine work and domestic commitments. The BBC’s first creche campaign, organised by women staff, had got underway the previous year and in 1974 an experimental nursery was opened at Pebble Mill in Birmingham.[20] However, it closed after a year, the first BBC nursery finally opening in 1990. An external campaign was that of ‘Women in Media’ who, in 1971, began pressurising the BBC to allow women to read the news. Nan Winton had briefly done so on television in 1960, but was dropped because, like Sheila Borrett in 1934, she was perceived to lack authority. The bastion was finally breached in 1974 when Sheila Tracey became the first regular female newsreader on Radio Four followed by Angela Rippon who, from 1975, presented BBC One’s Nine O’clock News. In 1979, the authors of Women in Top Jobs returned to the BBC to see what progress had been made. They found, however, that although the percentage of women employed in senior grades had risen to around 7 per cent, there were even fewer women in top jobs. ‘Years of benign neglect’ had resulted in a talent gap.[21]

One of those who had assumed a top job was Clare Lawson Dick who, just ahead of her retirement in 1975, briefly became Controller of Radio Four. In 1978, the position went to Monica Sims. Sims, promoted to Director of Programmes, Radio in 1983, resigned in 1984. However, her association with the Corporation did not end. She was asked to carry out a new survey into the position of women at the BBC. The Sims Report ‘Women in BBC Management’ was published in 1985 and revealed that, while 38 per cent of the monthly paid staff were women, they held only six out of the top 175 posts, less than 4 per cent. Not all was negative, however. Sims noted that there were increasing numbers of women broadcasters, not just newsreaders, but reporters such as Kate Adie and Frances Coverdale and presenters that included Margaret Jay on Panorama, Joan Bakewell on Newsnight, Esther Rantzen on That’s Life and Judith Hann on Tomorrow’s World. There were also high-profile women on radio; Sue MacGregor, Rosemary Harthill, Libby Purves, Gloria Hunniford, Anne Nightingale and Margaret Howard amongst them.

Sims interviewed many female managers about their work, her key findings echoing much of what had been learned before. There was, for example, reluctance amongst women to push themselves forward for promotion; having children meant that many missed out at a crucial point in their careers and the ‘men’s club’ atmosphere at the top was seen to be alienating. One of her recommendations was the appointment of a Women’s Employment Officer, along the lines of a successful scheme at Thames TV. She also suggested better career guidance; a review of Appointment Boards policy for senior posts and an increase in the numbers of women on management training courses. Part-time work, job sharing and flexible working should also be encouraged Sims advised. The Board of Managers accepted all recommendations and, in August 1986, the BBC’s first Equal Opportunities Officer was appointed. Initiatives soon came thick and fast: the setting up of a training fund, primarily for women-only courses; the creation of a job-share register and training for managers in fair selection. In 1987, Production Secretaries in Radio went on strike, demanding better pay and regrading to Production Assistants, in line with Television. They won.

In 1990, for the first time, the BBC appointed a woman to its Management Board, Margaret Salmon, the new Director of Personnel. Salmon had been recruited from the Burton Group and was, exceptionally, a woman engaged from outside. All other women who held top posts at this time (and in the years before) had risen through the Corporation’s ranks. During the nineties, more executive women would be recruited directly into the BBC including Liz Forgan who arrived in 1993 as Managing Director, Radio (from Channel Four), and Carolyn Fairbairn (enticed from the Downing Street Policy Unit), as Director of Strategy at BBC Worldwide in 1997. In October 1990, the Corporation set its first targets for women. At that time, women made up 10 per cent of top managers and 20 per cent of senior and middle management ranks. The targets were 30 per cent women in top management and 40 per cent in senior and middle management by 1996. Although not achieved by the original target date, in 2002, 38 per cent of senior management posts were held by women who now made up almost half the staff.

In March 1991, BBC Television hosted a conference ‘Spot the Difference’ with an audience of 250 included women broadcasters, journalists and politicians.[22] John Birt, then Deputy Director General, made the opening speech in which he declared that each time he was confronted by a roomful of men at a meeting he was ‘struck by the fact that half of those men are standing in the way of talented women’. When ‘Opportunity 2000’ was launched in October 1991 the BBC, a founder member, committed itself to a range of equal opportunities measures. However, in 1994 an internal survey revealed that women staff were paid on average 25 per cent less than men and in 1996, following a restructure, the number of women on the Board of Management dropped from four to two.[23] During the 1990s, many women who had made their careers with the BBC did reach the top. Jane Drabble, who joined the BBC as a studio manager in 1968, became Assistant to the Controller of BBC One in 1991. Jenny Abramsky, who joined as a studio manager in 1969, rose to be Director of Radio and Music in 1998. Patricia Hodgson, recruited as a producer in Education in 1970 was appointed Director of Policy and Planning in 1993. Three women who joined as news trainees also gained significant posts. Caroline Millington, one of the first trainees in 1970, became Controller of Multimedia Development in 1997. Lorraine Heggessey became Head of Children’s Television in 1997 and the first woman controller of BBC One in 2001 while Jana Bennett reached the top job of Director of Television in 2002. Both were news trainees in 1979.

Since 2000, the BBC has continued to take part in a range of initiatives to improve the position of women, including launching a Diversity Strategy in 2011 (in response to the Equality Act 2010) and signing up to ‘Project 28-40’ in 2014, to increase the proportion of women in technological and engineering roles. However, the number of women in senior management positions has stubbornly remained at around 38 per cent and women continue to be poorly represented at Executive level. The highest ratio of women to men on the BBC’s Executive Board was in 2006, when four out of the nine board members were women. In 2015, the ratio was four out of 13. These have been rocky times for the BBC which was pilloried for age discrimination against women and for its lack of women in authoritative roles. Miriam O’Reilly successfully won her case against the BBC in 2011, after being dropped from her presenter role on BBC One’s Countryfile. In 2012, Caroline Criado-Perez founded ‘The Women’s Room’ in response to the shunning of women experts by Radio Four’s Today programme. ‘Sound Women’, launched as a pressure group for women in radio in 2011, published research in 2014 which revealed women were still seriously under-represented in radio presenting roles.

The BBC, like many large institutions, continues to wrestle with issues of equality, yet women are still attracted to work there. My own experience of 24 years with the Corporation (1987-2011) was, on a personal level, hugely satisfying. I loved my job at Woman’s Hour where, like my spirited foremothers of the 1920s and 30s, I was able to bring to women’s programming my own passions and expertise. Yes, I struggled to juggle family and work as I raised three children. I groaned under endless management restructuring, painful budget and staffing cuts and the frequent crises in which the Corporation became embroiled. But despite the frustrations and limitations, as Lilian Taylor prophesised way back in 1923, the thrill and excitement largely remained. There are many areas of the BBC where women continue to be unrepresented, especially at the very top. Rona Fairhead became the first female chairman of the BBC when she was appointed to head the BBC Trust (the continuation of the BBC Governing body) in 2014. It is intriguing to speculate when a woman will finally take on the mantle of John Reith and be offered the position of ‘DG’.

  • [1] BBC/WAC:R13/241: Secretarial Training Centre, Burlton to Controller (Administration),6 October 1941.
  • [2] See Delia Jarrett-Macauley (1998) The Life of Una Marson, 1905-65 (Manchester:Manchester University Press).
  • [3] Sian Nicholas (1996) The Echo of War: Home Front Propaganda and the Wartime BBC,1939-1945 (Manchester: Manchester University Press) pp.70-107.
  • [4] Audrey Russell (1984) A Certain Voice (Bolton: Ross Anderson).
  • [5] The Oral History of the BBC: Audrey Russell interview, (no date).
  • [6] Kristin Skoog (2014) ‘Striving for Editorial Autonomy and Internal Recognition: BBCWoman’s Hour’ in Maggie Andrews and Sallie McNamara eds. (2014) Women and theMedia: Feminism and Femininity in Britain, 1900 to the Present (London: Routledge)pp.99-112.
  • [7] Jenni Murray (2006) Woman’s Hour: Celebrating Sixty Years of Women’s Lives (London:John Murray).
  • [8] Mary Irwin (2014) ‘Women’s Viewpoint: Representing and Constructing Femininity inEarly 1950s Television for Women’ in Andrews and McNamara, Women and the Media,pp.113-26.
  • [9] Mary Irwin (2011) ‘What Women Want on Television: Doreen Stephens and BBCTelevision Programmes for Women, 1953-64’, Westminster Papers, Vol. 8, issue 3.
  • [10] See, for example, Grace Wyndham Goldie (1977) Facing the Nation: Television andPolitics, 1936-76 (London: The Bodley Head); Charlotte Higgins (2015) This New Noise:The Extraordinary Birth and Troubled Life of the BBC (London: Guardian Books)pp.70-90.
  • [11] The Sunday Times, 27 April 1969.
  • [12] Paul Donovan (1997) All our Todays: Forty Years of Radio 4’s ‘Today’ Programme(London: Jonathan Cape) pp.8-14.
  • [13] Leonard Miall (1994) Inside the BBC: British Broadcasting Characters (London:Weidenfeld & Nicolson) p.173.
  • [14] The Times, 15 March, 1962.
  • [15] BBC General Advisory Council, meeting 24 January 1968, Arkell (Director of Administration) to Jay, 29 February 1968.
  • [16] Miall, Inside the BBC, pp.171-6.
  • [17] Michael Fogarty, A.J. Allen, Isobel Allen, Patricia Walters (1971) Women in Top Jobs:Four Studies in Achievement (London: Allen and Unwin) pp.157-222.
  • [18] Women in Top Jobs, pp.219-20.
  • [19] Jean Seaton (2015) Pinkoes and Traitors: The BBC and the Nation 1974-1987 (London:Profile) pp.207—31.
  • [20] See Suzanne Franks (2011) ‘Attitudes to Women in the BBC in the 1970s—Not SoMuch a Glass Ceiling as One of Reinforced Concrete’, Westminster Papers, Vol 8, issue 2.
  • [21] Michael Fogarty, Isabel Allen and Patricia Walters (1981) Women in Top Jobs, 1968-1979(London: Heinemann Educational Books) p.161.
  • [22] ‘Spot the Difference’ conference on the future of women in British television, 14 March1991, held at Television Centre.
  • [23] The Independent, 17 January 1994.
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