Jayne Dowle: New Top Gear is driving great gender divide debate

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I DON’T know much about making television programmes. I do, however, know quite a bit about driving, having been behind the wheel now for almost 25 years. I therefore have some claim when it comes to expressing an opinion about the new souped-up version of the BBC Two motoring programme Top Gear.

It might not sound like an Earth-shattering matter of national importance. Who talks to the camera alongside new presenter Chris Evans might not be the first thing that troubles us when we consider the state of inequality between the sexes.

However, I think we might all agree that Top Gear has become a bellwether of the state of our sexual politics. In many a home, the watching of the programme has long been a sacred activity reserved only for the males.

I am not joking. My sister, who lives with two self-confessed “petrolheads”, is banished to the kitchen when it comes on in case she talks. That’s why the suggestion that a woman may be chosen as the main presenter alongside Evans is dividing the nation and causing arguments from tap room to board 
room.

In fact, I think I might apply myself. Classic Car Show host Jodie Kidd and Formula One presenter Suzi Perry are tipped for the role, but the BBC has thrown open the audition to anyone over the age of 16 who sends in a 30-second video of themselves explaining why they are qualified for the job.

Whether this is an example of crafty BBC double-think to avoid arguments over “gender bias” – best person for the job and all that – we will set aside for a moment. The key points are that candidates have to be knowledgable about cars, and that they mustn’t include stunts or gimmicks in their clip. That rules out my fantasy rally-driving through Wombwell Woods on the way back from dropping my daughter at dancing class then.

Let’s get one thing straight, though. We’ve got to move on from Jeremy Clarkson. When he fronted the show, it was unashamedly a boys’ club. With co-presenters Richard Hammond and James May, women barely got a look in. When they did, they were tolerated with the same kind of tolerant bemusement usually reserved for those of us who like football or cricket.

From this woman’s point of view at least, any female who took them on in a speed test or similar was compared first and foremost as a member of the “fairer sex” rather than in straightforward competitive terms. To be fair, we shouldn’t castigate them. They couldn’t help it. Indeed, annoying though it was, it was probably due to a kind of confused chivalry as much as it was outdated sexism.

However, the BBC now has a chance to tear up the old-fashioned rule book and start again. And why shouldn’t women get a fair crack at the whip? After all, we drive more than men. And no, I haven’t just plucked that fact from out of thin air. Recent research from no less a body than the RAC reports that the number of new drivers is rising twice as quickly among women as it is among men. Between 1995 and 2010, the number of women with a driving licence grew by 23 per cent, a rise of 2.6 million to 13.8 million. Among men, however, the number grew by only nine per cent, up 1.4 million to 16.3 million.

This trend is likely to continue, as the sharpest drop in people passing their test is amongst young men in their twenties. In America, there are already more female drivers than male. With that kind of demographic, is it any wonder that the BBC is pushing the idea of a female co-pilot for Evans?

The statistics tell their own tale, but you only have to look in any traffic jam to see women of all ages, backgrounds and occupations tapping on the steering wheel. I’ll tell you something. If it wasn’t for us driving everyone to school, doing the shopping, popping into to see elderly relatives and generally keeping the wheels turning, society would grind to a halt. We might not bore for England on the mechanics of the internal combustion engine, but we could tell you the comparative price of petrol to the penny.

And gone are the days when the man of the house chose and purchased “a little runabout” for his wife to potter about in. These days, we girls know what we want. And that usually involves a motor which is economical, ergonomic, and with plenty of poke to get us out of sticky situations fast.

When we think about buying a new car, we consider a lot more than whether the colour of the paintwork will match our nail varnish. And we worry about safe and responsible driving. Anything which challenges the “boy-racer” mentality endangering life and limb on our roads and motorways has got to be a good thing.

Who knows? In another few years the tables might be turned completely. Can you imagine us pondering if it is really necessary to have a man presenting the programme? Jeremy Clarkson would choke on his two-stroke.