The other day I turned on an episode of QI. The show seemed different to normal, and it took me a few minutes to realise why: there were three women the panel. Three women and an Alan Davies. I blinked hard a few times, and checked the listings to see if it was some sort of QI: Oestrogen Special.
But hopefully soon such events won’t be astonishing at all, as this week, the BBC’s director of TV announced he was putting an end to panel shows with all-male line-ups. Danny Cohen told The Observer there was “no excuse” for the channel’s track record of testosterone-heavy casting, a promise that comes after a long campaign of criticism over shows like Mock the Week, which featured 38 male and only five female guest comedians on its most recent series.
“You can't do that. It's not acceptable," said Cohen. To which I think the only answer is "Obviously. But why stop at one?"
Before you splutter all over the comments section, let’s be clear that the end goal isn't a rigid 50/50 gender split of everything that ever goes on telly. Nobody's advocating shoehorning extra women into every possible scenario, just to make a statement.
As I see it, the ideal is to reach a point where we CAN have all-male panels again from time to time - because there would be enough all-female and fairly mixed panels to make the overall landscape a proportionate one. If you're hosting a panel on prostate cancer or male pattern baldness, by all means book a load of blokes – so long as you’re not booking them exclusively to comment on rape, maternity pay and abortion rights too.
Yes, it might mean token casting (though frankly, anyone who thinks we don’t have sufficient female comedy talent to fill the quota needs to get out/on YouTube more). Being the token anything is never anyone's ideal. But if a few years of tokenism can level the playing field to a point where it's no longer needed at all, sign me up.
The main issue we want to be fretting over isn't whether Cohen's rule will turn telly into a ladyfest full of token women padding out panels with their petal-scented opinions, but whether the minimum will also, through lazy resistance, become a maximum too.
Because one woman among three men is not, however you dress it up in novelty, very many women. It's half the amount needed to actually represent the population, and even fewer than the number needed to make up for years and years of all-male broadcasting at which nobody batted an eye. It's a ratio that will get you turned away from many West End nightclubs - yet one is better than none, and so it's on this crumb of progress we must feast for the time being.
And what's the alternative? We could sit back and wait another few decades for the balance to magically correct itself, all on its own. Maybe it will. But can we really expect a generation rich in fantastic female comedians and commentators to rise up and take the reins without a few more examples on TV to first let them know that it's possible?
Let’s fill the quota, overfill it, and top it up some more. Then when there are enough female voices on our screens, we can ditch the argument altogether – and won’t that be a relief?