Darwin College is represented by one of many all-male teams featured on the BBC favourite's current seriesBBC

There is nothing that strokes my ego quite like getting an answer right on University Challenge. Did you hear that, Mum? I can name the organ that regulates insulin in the body! Thank you, GCSE Biology. Oh yes, Paxo, I can name the director of The Beguiled – now give me that sweet, sweet intellectual validation. If I get more than five correct answers in a single episode, you might as well not talk to me that week, as I will become an insufferable egomaniac wondering why I haven’t yet been scouted by a field-leading mentor à la Good Will Hunting.

Yes, I love University Challenge. So much so, in fact, that I’ve often been asked by exhausted friends why I won’t just apply to take part. Every time, I ask myself: Why don’t I just apply to take part? I scan the row of bespectacled faces and poorly-fitting knitwear (my people!) and grimace as I find only one female face out of eight. Later, I scroll through my Twitter feed and cringe as it fills with comments regarding this woman’s face, body, and behaviour – that is, anything other than her intellect. Ah, yes: that’s why I won’t apply.

“I scroll through my Twitter feed and cringe as it fills with comments regarding this woman’s face, body, and behaviour – that is, anything other than her intellect. Ah, yes: that’s why I won’t apply”

When it comes to the media we consume, the easy option is to deem it simple and inconsequential entertainment. And, more often than not, I just want half an hour a week to shout incorrect answers at my screen with absolutely no consequences. Have I ever studied Latin? Of course not. Can I translate the three following legal phrases from Latin? Just watch me, Jeremy. However, when the media descends into its annual debate regarding the programme’s glaringly obvious gender imbalance, I sit down to watch it uncomfortably, a sense of guilt dampening my ability to enjoy the episode. Five episodes into the current series, and only 20% of competitors have been female, with no single team having featured more than one woman.

Make no mistake, the sexist way in which female competitors are discussed online is facilitated by the stark underrepresentation of women on the show, as many viewers come to see women as a novelty at which to gawk. A normal contestant, but with boobs? How can this be? Although I do not make remarks like those flooding my Twitter feed, I wonder if by watching University Challenge and knowing that no concerted effort is made to increase female participation, I am complicit in this dismal underrepresentation and subsequent demeaning of women not only on our screens, but in academia.

Katharine Perry, captain of Pembroke, Oxford's team, was subject to lewd comments onlineLAURA HEIGHWAY/TWITTER

University Challenge is, after all, a hugely popular, televised microcosm of the ‘real world’ of academia. Having garnered a cult following which is in no small part comprised of young people, the nationally-treasured game-show is for many the most accessible image of university available to them, streamed directly into their living room once a week. In my experience, this meant I came to perceive academia as male-dominated, and the level of knowledge to which I strove as an Oxbridge applicant as predominately belonging to pale, skinny men lacking in discernible social tact. At 17, I did not think I would be able to compete with the wildly intelligent male applicants like those who filled my television screen.

Some might argue that, as a student of a Cambridge women’s college, I am in a prime position to change University Challenge’s gender imbalance. Why don’t I assemble an all-female team? Throw flaming bras and suffragette sashes through the windows of the BBC Television Centre, claiming victory once and for all? Call me timid, but despite my love of the programme and my college pride, I cannot fathom making this a reality. There is no way I would even contemplate voluntarily subjecting myself to degrading comments about my appearance and feeling responsible for the perceived intelligence of my entire gender because I am on ‘the girl team’. What's more, I cannot see how I could ever convince myself that I really belonged behind the University Challenge desks due to a sense of alienation fostered by years of consistent female absence.


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There is no conceivable reason a pillar of British culture which represents our universities’ brightest students should possess such a drastic gender imbalance. This might sound completely ridiculous to you, and I understand that. From Loveday to Seagull and Monkman, University Challenge provides a new batch of household names (and memes) every year, made national sweethearts by both their personal quirks and their immeasurable knowledge. It’s all just a bit of fun! It is no coincidence, however, that these most beloved contestants have all been men, while their female competitors were gazed at, superficially evaluated, and forgotten. We cannot ignore the message this sends to young women in academia. Yes, I love University Challenge, but something needs to change.

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