University Challenge: Gender and General Knowledge
The gender ratios on University Challenge have always been skewed, and due to the recent boycott of the show by the University of Reading, gender and quizzing is being discussed a lot more lately. There’s only one team on the series currently airing that’s mostly female (East London), and four other teams with more than one woman (including Warwick) – out of 28 teams.
Even off-screen, the world of quizzing is pretty male-dominated. I went to a tournament in Cambridge last month, and of the 41 players, four were female. Of those, two of us were on the Warwick team. Warwick’s a bit of an anomaly in the quizzing world – the QuizSoc exec is currently made up of five people, three of whom are female, and a fair few other women are in regular attendance of our pub quizzes and buzzer quizzes. It’s not a perfect ratio by any means, and there is still progress to be made in the wider world of quizzing. While the lack of onscreen representation could be explained by the unwanted scrutiny of the public, I’m by no means an expert in why women are underrepresented in quiz tournaments offscreen. It always seems strange to me, to try and find this out by asking women who quiz - if I knew the answer, perhaps I myself wouldn’t be a quizzer. I’d be interested in hearing from people of all genders who don’t quiz.
Anyway, it’s that time of year when universities begin the process for next year’s University Challenge. The first hurdle is choosing the team – at Warwick, a process which is open to anyone who wanted to put themselves forward, and was broadcast all over social media. I don’t have exact figures, but somewhere in the region of 100-200 people went along to the initial paper test. The format was fairly straightforward – fifty questions, read aloud for an hour, and we had to fill in the answers on a sheet of paper individually. The questions ranged all over the place – from history to chemistry, and sports to cookery; some challenging and some not so much. I was in the zone - I wasn’t paying attention to the gender of my fellow test-takers, and have no exact statistics, but there were noticeably fewer women than men present. Of course, this is all just my experience – different universities can use different processes to select teams, and different people may experience the same test differently.
We’d all put our email addresses down on our sheets of paper, and after all of the tests had been marked, the people with scores of over 50% were invited to an interview. Of these eighteen, three were female. If you wanted to argue inequality at this point, you could also make a case for there being a subject bias – ten of the final eighteen candidates studied maths, despite maths students making up a minority of the student body as a whole.
I was one of the final eighteen, and my interview took place at 14:30 today. I was interviewed by two past Warwick UC captains, who are familiar with the process and I trust their ability to make a judgement on someone’s general knowledge. The interview was pretty short – I gave a brief description of what I felt my strengths and weaknesses were, and then they read fifteen questions to me on the buzzer – again, they had a wide range of subjects and were of a similar level of difficulty to those seen on the show. I admit that I was nervous - I faltered a few times, and threw a few questions that I probably should have got under normal conditions.
I got an email back this evening – I didn’t make the team, but that’s fine. Sure, I’m a little disappointed with myself, but the system was solid – it was a purely merit-based decision, and I believe that the result is fair. At no point did I feel like my gender came into it, and I accept that I can do a lot to improve. My disappointment is not the fault of the interviewers or the questions, but just a case of I'm not ready yet. Someone once said to me that their experience of UC had been the most emotional they’d ever got about something that didn’t matter, and I think that’s a good way of looking at it. There’s no point in getting hung up on not getting in, because there are far more important things than being on a TV show.
That being said? I’ve got a year to improve before I try out again next year – because I really do love quizzing, for all its imperfections. I wish the current and future Warwick teams the best of luck!