Older TV women 'disappear' as they raise children - not just because of an obsession with youth

Penny Marshall presenting during ITN Business News whilst in her 20s. Photo: Penny Marshall

I've been in this business a long time - and I've just turned 50. That it seems makes me a rare commodity and I'm pleased to say a valuable one too.

A few years ago I might have kept quiet about my 50th birthday and slipped off early on Fridays for some discreet youth therapy.

I might even have discussed with others quietly the possibility of a face lift.

But not anymore.

To celebrate my half century, I organised a ceilidh, asked all my friends and made sure all my bosses either came or knew. So I welcome this debate - it can do me no harm.

But with all this talk about the value of a woman's youth and beauty and the prejudice against us older models, I think we are missing something important about why women of a certain age are under represented on TV. The problem isn't all about looks.

What has stopped many women of my generation lasting their course in TV news in particular is that they had children and took time out to be with them.

Many didn't come back, and some of those that did returned behind the curve and without the confidence to catch up with their male counterparts.

Some, like me, worked part-time trying to balance home with work.

Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman: "Once female presenters hit 50, their days on-screen are numbered" Credit: PA/PA Wire/Press Association Images

There is something that mothers over 50 didn't have then, which many of the over-50 fathers who dominate our screens now did: a wife who will look after the kids.

I can't think of a single conversation in 30 years with any woman at ITN (the company that makes ITV News) in which we discussed how our fading looks would hurt our careers.

But if I could have a penny for every discussion I've had about how our growing responsibilities as mothers threatened our ability to stay on top, I'd be rich.

Many women gave up trying, and some took breaks and then didn't have the nerve to come back.

None of us like the stress of being held up to public judgement nightly by the viewers, and technology changes at unnerving speed.

TV reporting and presenting is highly competitive and not a job that's easy to return to.

The TV news environment is rather like being on a moving express train: once you are on it, you don't notice the speed with which its travelling. But watching it pass once you've stepped off - it's hard to imagine ever jumping back on board.

Penny Marshall outside Oxfordshire County Council yesterday. Credit: ITV News/ Tom Barton

So I don't think the shortage of oldies like me is entirely because of an "obsession" with a woman's youthful looks: it is part of it, and the fact that we are still teaching young women even now to value their looks above their brains is something I rail against.

I have three teenage daughters; I understand its a problem. It's even an issue I presented a programme about last year.

I think we also need to look at how a workplace can accommodate those - men and women - who want to spend time with their kids - and take career breaks without being made to feel somehow less committed or second class.

ITN has made flexi and part-time working an acceptable part of its landscape, even for those in very senior positions. Having mothers at the top of management who also "get it" helps.

But it was a man who first offered me a part-time contract.

Alex Forrest: Job-sharing as a political correspondent "is just not considered the done thing at Westminster" Credit: ITV News

So sure, it's a shame there aren't enough of us women of my age who have lasted the course.

But it's not the result of a conspiracy. It's the result of historic workplace inequality we have since done much to put right.

I'm sure some of those I trained with - and started out with - would have done a better job than many of the crusty men who remained in TV if they too had invested two decades practising.

But they didn't. And that's the point. It was simply too hard to make it work.

But the environment has changed - things have improved.

The generation behind us - the 40 somethings and 30 pluses are now in much better shape.

These are confident, single, child-free women or mothers living with more flexible partners than was fashionable in our day - and flexible and part time work is more available for those seeking balance.

So I don't think younger women need worry. Your time is coming.

Former Countryfile presenter Miriam O'Reilly won an employment tribunal against the BBC on the ground of ageism Credit: Yui Mok/PA Wire

And as for us oldies ?

I have just been re-hired by ITV News aged 49 after a careerbreak raising children.

I'm on screen, I'm old and I'm proud.

When the BBC was looking for older women to present their news a few years ago, they contacted my agent.

I was interested, but she told me I was too young to audition. That put a spring in forty-something step.