In a recent Radio Times interview Dara O’Briain, presenter of UK comedy quiz Mock the Week has hit back at BBC Director of Television Danny Cohen’s decision to require all such panel shows to feature at least one female comedian. While he obviously agrees that women should be involved in these programmes, said Mr Briain, he believes that publicly announcing the requirement suggests to the audience that women taking part in future will not be selected for their quick wit but to tick a box.   

Taking positive action to counteract the under-representation of a particular group of people is not only an issue for Mr Cohen to consider but one that faces many employers and is provided for in the UK’s anti-discrimination legislation.  Section 159 of the Equality Act in effect allows an employer to make an otherwise totally discriminatory decision to recruit female rather than male, black rather than white, etc., if that would assist its diversity statistics.   

This does come with some conditions, one of which is that the two candidates must be otherwise equally well qualified for the role.  This may be easier to establish if the job requires certain qualifications or a certain level of experience, but given that what people find funny is very subjective, establishing a comedian’s “qualifications” to appear on a panel show may prove somewhat problematic. By whose standards are the comedians’ skills to be judged? Does the producer’s sense of humour reign supreme? Or is it Mr Cohen’s? Or should it be judged on number of years’ experience in the business? And if so, what would count as ‘experience’? Would it include a Tuesday evening gig at a local pub being heckled by one man and his whippet, for example? And how do you treat those “comedians” who remain, despite substantial media profile, resolutely unfunny?  The obvious problem then becomes this: if you select the woman for your panel show because women are under-represented, i.e. expressly on the basis of her gender, but cannot show her to be as good as the man, then your Equality Act defence fails and you are guilty of blatant sex discrimination against the man. Oops.   

Furthermore, if under-represented groups should be actively selected to take part in these programmes, what about people from other groups such as ethnic minorities? Or the disabled? Or those who follow a particular religion?  By attempting to ensure that all under-represented groups are included, the traditional panel show three-a-side format would fall by the wayside and instead become a rainbow alliance inclusive of everyone, with the possible exception of anyone who is actually amusing.      

This issue of course goes much further than comedians on panel shows and throws up all manner of debates including announcements made by certain large companies of the aim to fill 40% of their senior roles with women. That’s great, but why only 40% when the UK’s population is over 50% female? Why does a target figure have to be applied to what should be happening anyway – that women, like men, should be receiving promotions and job offers when they are best suited for the role, not just to make up the numbers.   And could it even be claimed that the announcement of a diversity target and the allegations of tokenism which that inevitably creates is itself less favourable treatment on gender grounds, subjecting even the most successful women to unwarranted allegations that they are not there on merit?