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All the Brainy Ladies (Put A Quiz On It)

All the Brainy Ladies (Put A Quiz On It)

Where are all the quiz women?

As Julia Collins plays her 20th-straight Jeopardy! match tonight, I’ve wondered why it seems that only recently, there’s been an influx of notable women quizzers. At least in my lifetime, there have only been a handful of successful women on game shows and quiz shows, quiz tournaments and high school bowls. So rare is a successful woman on a quiz show that her mere competency is cause for celebration. Troubling, to say the least. I wondered about this on Twitter and engaged in very insightful conversation with quiz show writers, former Jeopardy! contestants and current game show fixtures about women in quiz. I’ve invited Season 3 Only Connect champion and QI elf Jenny Ryan to give her unique insight on the topic of women in trivia.

threeThe most visible quizzers on UK TV are the Eggheads and the Chasers—professional, hardcore quizzers, selected from the upper echelons of the national quiz rankings or on the back of major TV quiz success. This is the ultimate goal for most people who take their hobby seriously enough to travel the country and the continent in order to answer questions about beekeeping, Belgian comic books and Nordic skiing—even if they deny it outwardly, they’d love to be paid to learn and regurgitate facts and be commended for being a know-it-all.

To date, there have been 8 Eggheads and four Chasers. Twelve professional quizzers—of which just three are women.

A quarter. That makes me sad, because I don’t see the retention of general knowledge as a gendered thing. I do, however, wonder if there’s a cultural conditioning which means our smart women get a harder time of it when they choose to show off just how smart they are.

Women (not) on top

It seems that the more ‘serious’ the quiz show, the fewer women you will find. Whilst the popular (read: lowbrow) quiz shows like In It To Win It get pretty much a 50/50 gender balance, series like Mastermind can struggle to attract sufficient numbers of female contestants, and in fact have to loosen their own rules about not appearing in consecutive seasons. You’ll frequently hear male quizzers chunnering resentfully about women being allowed to simply “walk on” whilst they themselves are held on a perpetual waiting list. I can think of at least one occasion on which I was asked by male quizzers to join their team, essentially as the token woman who would improve the chance of being cast (I said ‘no’, by the way).

One factor that can’t help the low application rate is the response that some female quizzers have attracted, simply for putting their heads over the knowledge parapet. The dreaded ‘media’ take a fair bit of the blame. Whilst dozens of equally brainy male contestants pass through with nary a comment from the national press, watch what happens when a Girl appears on University Challenge as a team captain who does rather well. The press goes crackers. If you’ve never heard of Gail Trimble, go Google her now. I’ll wait here.

Yes, our newspapers made quite the fuss of intelligent, academic and, by all reports, very nice Ms. (now Dr.) Trimble. Firstly, by remarking on her tremendous knowledge and recall as if it were hugely shocking (the woman was a Classics post-grad at Oxford; of course she’s brainy. Duh). Then came references to her looks—“gorgeous, pouting” “thinking man’s crumpet” and worse—before degenerating into sniping and bitching about her appearance and supposed smugness, and culminating in an offer to pose semi-nude in a lads’ mag.

Dr. Trimble has, unsurprisingly, discontinued her quiz career. As have a number of other young female quizzers who have suffered similar backlash from UC/other highbrow shows, any of whom who may have been potential Chasers or Eggheads or World Quiz Champions.

You can never be too thin, too rich or too good at quizzing

Is it any wonder women are a bit hesitant about putting themselves forward to be judged on their general knowledge, when there’s a distinct possibility that if their knowledge is too good, they’ll get judged on their looks, assumed personality traits, outfit etc. in a much more vicious way than any male would? I can only see this being even more of an issue in the age of Twitter (#smugbitch, etc.) Outside of quiz, see also the history academic Mary Beard and the misogynistic crap she’s been subjected to. Simon Schama doesn’t have to put up with that nonsense.

I’ve made a high-tech flow diagram to illustrate what happens when brainy folk appear on the TV.

Editor’s note: this was a charming handwritten chart that I’ve recreated for clarity. Sorry, Jen.

Untitled 2.001

I suspect what it comes down to is a cultural norm: women can’t be cleverer than men. Which is, of course, total nonsense (compare this to the old comedy argument that goes “…but women just aren’t funny”) but clearly lingers.

How are we going to kick that outdated concept’s ass and run it out of town?

Smart women—get your brains out for the lads (and lasses)

Make it obvious that we don’t care if a fuss is made about the way we look or the way we move or speak or any of that. Make it obvious that all that matters is that we have brilliant brains, and we’re going to use them to maximum effect.

We’ve got quiz role models—do you think that it makes any difference to Daphne Egghead or Anne Hegerty from The Chase if some jumped-up newspaper columnist, blogger, or Twitter troll remarks on the way they look? Even if it did, they’d never let it show – they’d keep their heads, and vent their anger by crushing yet another challenger.

Let’s be brave, be bold, and make “smart women being smart in public” the new cultural norm. Until then, when I next appear on a TV quiz show, please keep me away from Twitter.

N.B. I genuinely didn’t intend this to become a call to arms but I got furious during the writing process. I’d love to hear people’s thoughts – if you’re on Twitter use #QuizWomen.

VxifaihtJenny Ryan has been quizzing all her life. Literally. Even before she could write words she could scrawl a question mark. Since those early formative years she’s appeared on many UK quiz shows, including University Challenge, Mastermind, Are You An Egghead?, Fifteen to One, Weakest Link and Only Connect. Making use of her ability to form a ‘?’ freehand, she’s also worked behind the TV scenes: as a question writer/verifier on shows like Weakest Link, and by slinging obscure facts at Stephen Fry as an Elf on QI. When not doing the quizzy stuff, Jenny earns a crust as a social media maven and a singer/ukulele-botherer.


  1. TrivWorks

    Very good topic to raise, and addressed well

  2. CarShark

    This keeps coming up, and I can’t help but wonder whether the flurry of criticism that Jeopardy has received recently for supposedly being “biased” towards males from liberal web sites has led to backstage changes. One article even mentioned that one member of the staff was rooting for Julia, which makes me question the impartiality behind the contestant selection process. It reminds me too much of when Who Wants to Be a Millionaire first started. Contestants had to play the Phone Game and then the Fastest Finger, which was blind and impartial. Frankly, the way it should be. For some reason, something like 85% of the contestants were white males, and there wasn’t a single Black person on the show until Steven Maurice Clark’s run about 200 contestants in. As a Black person, I found it embarrassing to hear all of the hoopla surrounding his being on the show, as if he were manna from Heaven, and even he said that the criticism of the show was unfair. What was most ridiculous was hearing from other kids in my minority-majority high school, and even teachers (!) that the producers simply weren’t picking black people because they didn’t want them on the show. I was still hearing that even after Regis started taking time out of each show to *beg* women and minorities to play the Phone Game. It was like living in The Twilight Zone. It wasn’t too much longer before they changed to having the test-interview format, which served a double purpose: By choosing contestants primarily because of their identity and personality rather than intelligence and speed, it gave Regis more to play off of during the chats and during deliberations. It saved money from the budget, as the contestants didn’t do nearly as well once the FF went away. It wasn’t unusual for there to be several shows a month where no one made it to the top tier. Finally, and most importantly, it stopped the negative media attention around the gender and racial make-up of the contestants. That’s what it looks like to me. I wouldn’t be surprised to suddenly see many more Blacks and Hispanics on the show, because that’s apparently that’s what TPTB want, whether they do well or not.

    To be perfectly honest, there is one simple reason why there aren’t many women and minorities on quiz shows: they aren’t that interested in them. Unless its a big breakout hit (WWTBAM, DOND), game shows aren’t a big deal outside of our little community. Trivia and quiz bowls even less so. It’s not a surprise that KenJen and other question setters and others tied to trivia are the ones who try out and thrive.

    As for the treatment, part of it I think is familiarity breeding contempt. After his 20th win or so, it seemed that KenJen’s press went from positive to more neutral. Then came the decrying of another white male success. Then the Mormon jokes after the “Rake/Ho” Incident. Then once it leaked that he was going to lose soon, there were sighs of relief. Arthur Chu just went through that faster because of his gameplay, dress and temperament. The bonus for Julia is that because people were slow to catch on they won’t get tired of her as soon.

  3. pacdude

    “To be perfectly honest, there is one simple reason why there aren’t many women and minorities on quiz shows: they aren’t that interested in them.”

    Prove it.

  4. CarShark

    Oh, yes. I totally meant that in a scientific way, as opposed to in my experience like the rest of what I said. I don’t know how many times I have mentioned someone on Jeopardy or The Chase to female friends and associates and gotten blank stares. At least, until the past two women champions. I still don’t get much of a reply from my Black friends, even after Colby’s run.

    What else could be the reason? They aren’t passing the test? The producers are passing them over? They miss the contestant search buses? The show tries to be as fair and impartial to contestants as possible, unless you believe otherwise, the issue has to be at the start of the pipeline.

  5. Travis Eberle

    Are you saying that quiz shows aren’t self selecting? People who are on quiz shows are those who like them and are good at them; those who “play along at home”. Those who aren’t interested don’t try out. I wouldn’t generalize across demographic bounds, but I think the case stands–you get the people who want to have a go because they’re smart enough.

  6. Wayne_Stevens

    I’m curious how you would like that to be proved to your satisfaction?

    If you’re looking for raw data, then go all the shows, after all, you’re from buzzer blog.

    Based on the people at all the auditions I’ve been to (37 tests passed, probably just as many failed), plus Regis outright stating it, and watching local quiz bowl on TV, I’m inclined to agree with the lack of interest theory. That includes many white males I’ve encountered that always say they love to watch but don’t feel “smart” enough to go.

    People generally don’t understand that trivia is not about being smart, it’s recall on demand.

    And while you’re asking the shows for the non existant raw data, ask for the percentage of women/minorities who do pass that are chosen for the show.

  7. Wayne_Stevens

    The shows are not as fair and impartial as you might think, they cherry pick who they want, when they want. That’s why the shows call it casting these days.

  8. Bainsey

    In the end, all that matters is that people have an equal opportunity at testing and auditioning for a game show, regardless of gender.

  9. Anne Hegerty

    In the UK, where it’s a daytime show, the Chase audience skews female and old. I am a heroine to every British granny.

  10. CarShark

    It doesn’t have to be about intelligence, either. If a person just likes answering questions, but doesn’t like the competitive aspect, then chances are they won’t try out. If they are more introverted, then they definitely won’t, especially after seeing Arthur Chu become Public Enemy #1 after using a bit of strategy.

  11. I appreciate what you bring to it very useful, thanks

  12. antonspivack

    I don’t get why Arthur Chu got so much flak, it’s not like he cheated, he just employed a technique that a few others used without so much public scorn.

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