The Apprentice

If you missed series one of The Apprentice on BBC2, I heartily recommend tuning in for the inevitable second run. This marginally more intelligent form of reality television followed fourteen hopefuls, all competing for the chance to work as Sir Alan Sugar’s “apprentice” for a nice fat six-figure salary. To win the show, and the job, they had to endure twelve weeks of living and working together, with tasks set each week to assess their business skills and potential. Each week the contestants were split into two competing teams, with the group who failed the task having to explain themselves in the boardroom to Sir Alan before one of them was declared to be out of the running by being dramatically ‘fired’. At the start of the series we were presented with the finalists, chosen from hundreds of applicants, who were a selection of business brains from across the UK, some of whom had given up rather good jobs to be on the show. The seven men and seven women were then split, for the first two weeks, into gender groups and that is where the gruesome battle began.

Preparing myself for the male team to be all ego and the female team to be quite bitchy, I settled down to watch the first show thinking that, even if the age old gender stereotypes were to be reinforced, at least I’d be entertained by something other than dodgy singing, cosmetic surgery or minor celebrities feasting on insects. The reality was not quite what I’d bargained for. Despite the programme being intelligently planned and executed, the calibre of some of the contestants left a lot to be desired – consistently patronising, aggressive, argumentative and disruptive, the majority of the worst contestants turned out to be female!

It was rather embarrassing to watch

On paper, every one of them seemed intelligent and driven, but during the tasks some of them crumbled under pressure and appeared totally inept at dealing with people. Four weeks in and the most striking incident showed one female candidate speaking to a Harrods employee as if he were six years old, when they had all clearly been told the previous day by Sir Alan to treat everyone at the store with respect. It was rather embarrassing to watch, especially as the woman in question predicted the results of the next day’s boardroom decision and decided to pre-empt her firing by quitting due to personal reasons.

Thankfully things got better as the worst of the finalists were gradually sent packing. One by one they fell but, even though the casualties were mostly women in the early days, I don’t think anyone could accuse Sir Alan of getting rid of them purely on the basis of gender. These women were terribly unprofessional in the tasks they were given and deserved to be out of the running, no matter how hard it was for me to watch as a feminist.

There is no way to tell for sure, however, if the programme makers were giving viewers a fair and balanced view of the way everyone was behaving during the tasks. Chances are that they want to include all stroppy and destructive behaviour in the final cut as it makes good television. Adding weight to that theory, at the end of the show’s run, I read an interview in The Guardian with Sir Alan Sugar where he claimed editors cut a welcome speech in which he said: “Ladies, I don’t want you to feel intimidated here in any way or form because I’ve got great respect for women in business. In fact, [he says the next bit very slowly] Some Of The Best People I have Ever Employed in My Whole Life were Women.” After the first four weeks I was hoping that the men would start to feel the pressure a bit more with their fair share of arguments. Thankfully, this did happen with one man angrily accusing the other team of stealing his share of the invitations to a gallery opening, and another even daring to argue with Sir Alan himself.

chances are they included all stroppy and destructive behaviour in the final cut

The final five that were left in the running all deserved a place in the last show and you could really see Sir Alan struggling to come up with a reason to let the wonderful Miriam go. It turned out that he didn’t really see her fitting in to his company, but her firing certainly did seem harsh” especially when it only left one woman in line for the “100k job. By this point I was wondering if there was a valid reason why there are so few female directors in big business, however, I suspect a vast majority of the good ones wouldn’t leave their jobs for something as trivial as a television show!

The final two ended up being a woman with a very masculine sales and management style – direct, determined and results focussed – and a man with a rather feminine management style – more thoughtful and empathic. Sir Alan chose the male candidate, Tim, as more like the mouldable apprentice he was after, but you could see that he had real trouble choosing between the two as he was so impressed with Saira. Despite her abrupt style winning her as many friends as it did enemies, there was no denying that she deserved to be there. Saira and Miriam aside, I can only hope that the way that women in business were portrayed in The Apprentice encourages a better calibre of female applicant for series two.

Lorraine Smith is a regular contributor to The F-Word and lives in Manchester.