BBC reality show in sexism row

Hasan Suroor

It is being seen as "confirmation" that widespread gender bias against women employees existed despite a plethora of equality laws.

AT STAKE was a £100,000 a year job and Katie Hopkins nearly had it in her grasp. After seeing off competition from 14 rivals, she had just been told and she had made it to the final round. "You're in the final, you're staying," she was told. But suddenly the proceedings took an entirely unexpected turn. The boss wanted a commitment from the 31-year-old single mother of two that if she was eventually given the job she would move to London, uprooting herself from Devon where she lived with parents who looked after her children when she went out to work. And he wanted an instant answer.

"I haven't got time to wait for you to make a phone call," he snapped as she hesitated. Ms. Hopkins said she was not in a position to give the commitment without consulting her parents but since he wanted a reply here and now, here it was: she preferred to "stand down" rather than make a decision "without having the courtesy to speak to the people who care for my children."

"I think it's more important to get the courtesy to have my plans in place, so I suggest I stand down," she said and walked out turning her back on one of the most coveted jobs for aspiring professionals. There was stunned silence in the room as she slammed the door shut.

The incident, watched "live" on television by millions of BBC viewers last week, sparked a furious nationwide debate on "sexism" in the boardroom. The way Ms. Hopkins was treated was seen as "confirmation" that widespread gender bias against women employees existed despite a plethora of equality laws. Women rights campaigners were livid (men were curiously absent from the debate) and asked: Would a male candidate, even if he were a single parent with complicated child-care arrangements, have been subjected to the same line of questioning that Ms. Hopkins was? Would a man, however imperfect his domestic situation, be forced so crudely to choose between his family commitments and his job?

Why is it that so much negative weight is always given to a woman's family circumstances even when, professionally, she ticks all the boxes? Why is she not judged solely on her professional capabilities?

Ms. Hopkins was among the 16 contestants on the BBC's popular prime-time reality show The Apprentice in which bright and ambitious young entrepreneurs compete for a six-figure job offered by Sir Alan Sugar, a self-made and tough-talking millionaire who presides over one of Britain's largest business empires. Over a period of 12 weeks, the contestants chosen from among thousands of applicants are put through a series of gruelling "tasks," and after each task Sir Alan fires one contestant saying: "You're fired!" The series, aimed at promoting entrepreneurship and based on Donald Trump's American show of the same name, has been so popular that it has been moved from the niche BBC Two to the mainstream BBC One channel.

Ms. Hopkins, who trained at Sandhurst, was a management consultant before she signed up for The Apprentice declaring that she aspired to be the "CEO of a large global brand builder by 40." Joining Sir Alan's business empire was the way forward, she believed. During interviews with Sir Alan's executives and in conversations with fellow-contestants, the sharp-tongued and acerbic Ms. Hopkins described herself as ambitious and "ruthless."

There were rumours, which she didn't deny, that she already held a £90,000 a year job fuelling speculation that she was on the show not so much to get the job as to acquire a media profile the weekly TV exposure gave her.

Charges denied

Sir Alan, rubbishing the charge of sexism hurled at him, said he had always doubted her "commitment." Indeed, just before telling her that she had qualified for the final, he asked her point blank whether she was really serious about the job or simply wanted to "win" the show and walk away. He confessed later that even before she turned down the offer he had half a mind saying to her: "Love, I've just changed my mind... You're fired."

So, was Ms. Hopkins a victim of "sexism"?

It is argued that the fact that one of the two finalists is a woman and that last year Sir Alan chose a woman to be his apprentice disproves the allegation. "Old-fashioned yes, but sexist no," said one commentator pointing out that one of his two closest aides, who guide him through the show and on whose advice he makes his weekly judgement, is a woman, Margaret.

Personalities apart Sir Alan may or may not be a closet sexist the controversy has re-ignited the debate on gender inequality in Britain where 30 years after the Government adopted the Equal Pay Act, women are still paid less than their male colleagues for the same work. There are clubs where women are either banned or treated as second-class members with restricted rights. And in the House of Commons there are less than 50 women MPs in a 600-odd strong House despite the avowed "commitment" of all the three parties to give proper representation to women.

This week the Government has issued a consultation paper aimed at removing gender discrimination in public life. The question is: who'll bell the cat?

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