The Gender (Bias) Question

I’ve had the question of gender bias in quizzing on my mind a fair bit recently, but have been directly prompted to write this by this spectacularly grim exposé of a men-only charity event in London.

Some will be shocked, some less so. I think I’d be more shocked if I hadn’t been involved in what is loosely termed “corporate events” for the last 12 years.

I hasten to add, very strongly, that I have never hosted a quiz at an event anything like that described, and nor, to my knowledge, have any of my colleagues. In that sense it is shocking. But we’ve all run high-end corporate, testosterone-heavy evenings where a lot of money was on display and/or raised for charity. I also know that some of our female (and male) quiz hosts and quiz assistants have experienced a range of inappropriate behaviours in that kind of environment.

I’m going to take this opportunity not just to focus on the bad behaviour of rich city men but to take a bit more of a reflective look at myself, our company and the wider world of quizzing.

The company was set up by three people, one of them a woman, Lesley-Anne Brewis, around 15 years ago. She is still involved with the day-to-day running of the company and probably has been more involved than anyone else over that 15 year period.

We currently have two female quiz hosts (and in the past have had two others) and rather more male, but over the last few years, Lesley and Abbie Jones have been our two busiest quiz hosts. So, if you hire QuizQuizQuiz to run a quiz for you, there’s about a 50/50 chance the quiz will be run by a woman.

Occasionally, as we’ve written about before, Lesley has had to field enquiries from event organisers who have sought to dictate that the host be a man “as a woman wouldn’t be able to handle the crowd”. Our experience and our response is that such an attitude and such a request has no justification.

If it is an extremely boisterous crowd, I think all our hosts can handle and harness that well without playing to it. None of us are of the “eh, lads, banter, banter, women, eh?” persuasion, but neither is raucousness to be discouraged at a quiz. It is a line which I believe we tread pretty well, and also, I should say, most people at quizzes are pretty polite, respectful and also great fun, be they traders, teachers or technicians.

Some quiz organisers have specific concerns that their event, a work night out, may become excessively blokey and banterous, and under that circumstance we’re confident we can keep a check on that element and run a more, shall we say elegant evening.

Though we run a full range of quizzes for all kinds of crowds, and it depends on the company or the nature of the event, when we ask, in advance, for demographic information, 60/40 or 70/30 men is probably the most common split, particularly at city firms. In preparing a quiz, our quiz hosts should always pay full attention to the demographic information they receive (and then further adapt on the night), whether it relates to gender split/nationality/age or anything else.

For all sorts of social and cultural reasons, the atmosphere and nature of a quiz is affected by these factors, and we have to be mindful of that.

But do we get it right, as a company, as quiz hosts, particularly as question writers? That’s my bit. I write nearly all our questions, have done for over a decade. I’m a man (yes I am) …

Jack Waley-Cohen, one of the other co-founders, is my main collaborator, particularly on TV shows, and we have used many other writers, both freelance and employed, down the years, of whom there have been a few women but the majority men. But overwhelmingly, it is me, as writer, as editor, as organiser, who dictates what questions emerge from QuizQuizQuiz. So – to carry on the theme of quoting songs originally released in 1988 which reached Number 2 in the UK singles chart – I’m starting with the man in the mirror …

… am I asking him to change his ways? Not too much, maybe a little bit …

Sometimes I write to order, sometimes I write freestyle, often it’s a bit of both. I write questions which I think are fun and interesting, and I try to combine that with writing specifically to an audience, whether that’s a TV audience, a pub quiz crowd, a demographic playing a particular app. My job is mainly to write entertaining questions that most people like, obviously. When you’re “just doing your job”, you can lose track of identity politics and, mainly, you should do exactly that.

But there are times when I know I could and should have been more aware of the details.

Where shall I start? Sport. This is often where I start when I want to understand something about myself and the world. I have written about sports rounds in a professional capacity before and also, if you’re interested, have written in a personal capacity about the inequalities facing women in the world of sport.

I love sport, I’ve always loved it, and I can be a bit defensive about it. I’ve often taken some version of the head-in-the-sand “sport is great for everybody and if you don’t like it that’s your problem” attitude.  I grew up in a house where my mother was always listening to Test Match Special, would indulge me prattling on about football for hours, where my two sisters (and brother) all played, followed and talked about sport to varying degrees.

Sport is not a “male” thing, I would say. And it isn’t, except to the extent that men make it so … which is a pretty huge extent, as any number of recent stories will attest.

In the majority of the 100s of quizzes I’ve run, I haven’t included a sport round.  This is not because I think sport is an intrinsically unfair topic, but more because of the potential groans when it is announced, which are just a bit of a mood-killer. At quizzes, people who don’t like sport let it be known they don’t. More often it’s women, but certainly not always. If I could justifiably say each time, “this will be a gender-balanced, all-encompassing sport round from which no one will feel excluded”, that would be fine, but who would I be kidding? Taking into account people’s knowledge-base, that would be hard to do.

But, equally, there are things I could have done better. I haven’t always written “England men’s football team” where I could just write “England football team”, I haven’t always sought to make a sport round as diverse and balanced as I could. There is value in these small actions.

The thing is, sport is a good subject for quiz questions. It is full of records and verifiable facts. Once, when I ran a sport round, a woman called out “if there’s a sport round for the men, there should be a fashion round for women?” … beyond questioning whether those are really gender-specific equivalents, well, at times, I have tried to write a solid set of questions about fashion. It wasn’t my finest work … the truth is that probably a fashion round written by me is not good, rather than a fashion round per se, but still, the trove of usable, “factable” facts is not so immediately accessible, put it that way.

As a quiz host, you’re in danger of becoming defensive about any number of issues, not just sport. At QuizQuizQuiz, we set out to run enjoyable and accessible quizzes which are fair for everybody – that’s our calling card. If people assume that’s not what’s happening, that is annoying. If you hear an American person protesting that the picture round is unfairly biased against them when there are 7 American faces and only half a British face on the sheet, or a young person protesting that Watergate was before they were born, or an older person protesting that they can’t be expected to know anything about pop culture when there’s a question about Buddy Holly (yes, I’ve had all those things more than once), you can gradually learn to take umbrage.

But … I have equally faced certain truths when we have been asked to compile and host quizzes slightly outside the comfort zone. We attempt to tailor every quiz to its audience, and we do it successfully. Down the years, we’ve been asked to host quizzes for children, for over-65s, for women, for LGBT events, for Diversity events, for Synagogues, for Chinese people, for Americans, for Scottish people and Irish people, for Christian speed daters, for everybody specific and nobody specific. We do it and we do it well. I love writing quiz questions and I’m pretty good at it. But, if someone says “this quiz is, basically, for 25-45 year old University-educated men who live within touching distance of London”, suffice to say I don’t have to go deep into my research bunker to find material that suits the requirement.

That’s me. But also, importantly, it’s our main audience. It’s our bread and butter. So, consciously and subconsciously, I’ve written 1000s of questions to suit that. There remain subtle challenges. I was 27 when I started, now I’m 39. It is a lttle bit harder to hit the young professional’s cultural sweet spot. And are my quizzes inherently weighted towards men? This is the tough question to face.

The good thing is we produce enough material that it is always possible to create a quiz that suits its audience, as well as being able to write new material to suit pretty much any requirement. Sometimes a quiz is 80/20 men taking part, sometimes around 50/50, sometimes mainly women. There is not really an accurate way to judge if quizzes are unfairly weighted to give an advantage to one gender – anecdotally, I see quiz teams which contain a good balance of men and women usually win, and I’ve never had someone come up to me and tell me the quiz I just ran has reinforced the patriarchy.

But if I cast my eye over our database, there are a lot more questions about men than women. That’s the uncomfortable truth. A lot more. Be they in history, politics, entertainment or sport. Is that unavoidable? Somewhat. All those US presidents and Roman emperors, all those Oscar-nominated film directors, all those Sports Personalities of the Year which are quiz meat-and-drink … as a quiz writer, do I reflect “history” or just the male version of history.

I have to ask myself, if our quiz-writing responsibilities were split 50/50 between me and a a woman, would we have a more even spread, subject-wise, and I expect the answer is yes.

So, I can do better. But then again, everybody can do better.

Gender inequality has been one of the biggest stories of the last few years, across sport, across the entertainment industry and the media, across politics, science, the arts and everyday life. It won’t go away.

How about the wider world of quizzing? Some of the most well known quizzers in Britain are women, such as Anne Hegerty and Jenny Ryan on The Chase, & Judith Keppel, Lisa Thiel and Beth Webster on Eggheads, as are the hosts of some of Britain’s favourite quizzes, such as Sandi Toksvig on 15 to 1 and, of course, Victoria Coren Mitchell on Only Connect.

We’ve worked in TV a fair bit over the last few years, so have a few observations.

Generally, on the “question production” side of things, whether that’s writing, editing or verifying, I’d say there are more men, but not by a huge amount (you might simply want to check credits of major quiz shows for evidence of this), and I’ve honestly seen nothing suggesting it is a hostile environment to women.

One of the show’s we’ve worked on is The Code, where the co-host/quiz expert, with Matt Allwright, is our own Lesley-Anne Brewis. As for the participants, there is a general attempt in casting, I think, to have as much as balance as possible. In terms of winners on The Code, in the first series, there was a good balance of men and women, and in the second series, more men, but both reflective of the ratio of participants. Generally, I’m told, far more men apply to quizzes than women, but some quizzes are able to “cast” in order to have a nice and balanced mix of contestants over the course of a series.

As for Only Connect, though I have no precise insight into the contestant selection process, it is a show where the quality of the teams is the utmost importance – each episode stands or falls by all the participants being good at playing Only Connect. More men apply for and appear on Only Connect than women, but that ratio is gradually changing. Of participants in the final, it is, so far, around 1/5 women, but that is significantly on the increase in the past few seasons. I sometimes see people comment disapprovingly on Twitter when there are (pretty occasionally) two all-male teams against each other. I can see why people are disappointed if that is the case, but all I can say is Only Connect has a female host and a majority female crew and has absolutely no interest in being seen as a “male” show.

University Challenge (of which I have no personal experience) has occasionally faced criticism for the maleness of the teams, but the criticism was met with the reasonable response that the show is just casting the best teams that the universities sent. Following on from that, there were some articles suggesting that university quiz societies were sometimes male-dominated… soon one realises that it is hard to untangle, as in other fields,  what might be a specific inequality and what is the endless cycle of male-dominated traditions.

More quizzers are men. Consequently, more quizzers are men. And on we go. Anything run by and participated in by mainly men will, even without any specific ill will on anyone’s part, be less open and welcoming to women. Unless active steps are taken.

The question of whether “men are more inclined to be quizzers because of how their brains are” is, up to a point, beyond me, but I have never seen any evidence of that, and based on the all-round mental skills required to be good at a wide variety of quizzes, I do not personally believe that is true, anything but.

I was cruelly schooled in the fallacy of the male quizzer very early on, when, in my family, I was always the “quizzy” one who made a habit of memorising lists etc, but when it actually came to playing Trivial Pursuit, I was always baffled as to how my less ostentatious sisters ended up winning the day …

I can’t deny there is gender bias in quizzing. There are other biases too. A quiz may well have a specific bias based on the writer’s interests. A quiz is, fatuous as it may sound, biased towards people who actively enjoy taking part in quizzes. A UK-based quiz will, almost unavoidably, have some bias towards British people, even if the writer tries to avoid it.

I think I’m getting better, at least at being aware of this bias. If I’m writing questions for a day, I’ll more quickly be triggered if I’ve just written five questions in a row about male film stars. I, as a writer, have more responsibility than ever to think of these things.

I’ll finish by just considering the question of responsibility. Does a quiz writer/host have any responsibility to address gender bias? I think so. Quizzes deal in facts, they are meant to be about what is entirely true. In that sense, the content should reflect something a little more than just “what the writer is into” but be something of a reflection of the full scope of the world (never losing sight of the need to suit the crowd and, above all, be fun).

A quiz host also has a small (not to be overstated!) ability to influence what participants know about, what is “worthwhile information”. Within that framework, a quiz which is just male-dominated info or Brit-dominated info can be seen as an opportunity missed, if fairness and equality are things you care about at all.

This is just my take on it. I’d be very interested to hear other people’s viewpoints and experiences, as participants, hosts, viewers, or anything else.






1 reply
  1. Sue (aka Quizzy Sue)
    Sue (aka Quizzy Sue) says:

    As an experienced, middle-aged female Quiz Host myself, I found this a fascinating, thought-provoking read.

    Thank you for sharing.


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