Monday 26 September 2016

If women's voices aren't heard, they will just become more marginalised

Published 10/11/2015 | 02:30

Sean O’Rourke’s (left) show increased its female participation from 25pc in 2013 to 44pc last year, as a recent study highlighted the paucity of women broadcasters like Miriam O’Callaghan, right, in current affairs
Sean O’Rourke’s (left) show increased its female participation from 25pc in 2013 to 44pc last year, as a recent study highlighted the paucity of women broadcasters like Miriam O’Callaghan, right, in current affairs

Female voices are largely absent from public life in Ireland, but young women are increasingly turning to social media to circumvent this censorship and get their message out.

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A study released today contains more depressing information about the number of women contributing to current affairs programmes on national radio. Examining a three-week period at the end of 2014, the 'Hearing Women's Voices?' survey found that, on average, 72pc of people speaking on flagship news shows on RTÉ, Today FM and Newstalk were men.

RTÉ fared best with 37pc female participation; Today FM managed 30pc; while at Newstalk, with figures that wouldn't look amiss in a survey of Saudi Arabian media, just 18pc of contributors were female. The report, funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, also found the paucity of female voices doesn't just extend to the numbers appearing on current affairs programmes. When women actually do appear, they get less airtime than their male counterparts, while the majority of "expert" guests who appear on programmes are also male.

In response to these figures, it is likely we will hear lots of familiar excuses being trotted out today. Radio stations will say that producers working on fast-paced news programmes are up against tight deadlines and don't have time to worry about gender balance in the scramble to book guests.

We will hear about the confidence gap that exists between men and women, with the latter said to be much more reluctant to appear in the media holding themselves out as someone with something interesting to say about a particular issue. The dearth of women in politics and in senior management positions in business and other professions, will also be cited as a reason that women's voices are under-represented on the national airwaves.

In short, the fault for the difficulty in finding women to appear on current affairs programmes will be divested from individual news programmes and instead heaped onto the shoulders of women themselves, who, we are repeatedly told, are too timid, under-qualified and hard to find to be given a voice.

However, this convenient passing of the buck doesn't explain the huge discrepancy in achieving the gender balance that currently exists among similar shows on different stations.

For instance, why was it possible for the Sean O'Rourke show on RTÉ Radio One to increase its female participation from 25pc in 2013 to 44pc last year, while the representation of women on The Right Hook on Newstalk decreased from 20pc to a pathetic 5pc during the same period?

Clearly, something can be done about it - despite the undoubted difficulty for researchers and producers.

Predictably, the same reasons for the failure of the Abbey Theatre to find more than one woman to appear in its programme marking the centenary of the Easter Rising, 'Waking The Nation', were recently proffered.

This glaring omission was not the Abbey Theatre's fault, according to director Fiach Mac Conghail. Instead, in a series of astonishing tweets last week, he intimated that female playwrights were not good enough to be included. "In programming any season I want to make sure that the plays are good (imho), ready and delivered," he wrote, adding, "I took decisions based on who I admired and wanted to work with".

Backtracking furiously in an open letter published at the weekend, Mr Mac Conghail sought to clarify these incendiary remarks, saying the failure to include anything close to a proportionate number of female playwrights was "not something (he could) defend".

Given his garbled reaction to criticism, one got the sneaking suspicion that, actually, the lack of female representation in the programme was something that hadn't even occurred to Mr Mac Conghail before a furore erupted on social media.

This is why the staggering lack of female voices contributing to public life in Ireland - in the media, in politics, in business and the arts - matters.

It's because invisibility breeds invisibility.

Anybody who listened to a three-hour news programme populated almost exclusively by female voices would think it was plain weird. Similarly, anyone who saw an entire year-long arts programme whose authors were 90pc female would think it odd, or at least notable.

However, complaints about the Right Hook being 95pc male, or Waking The Nation being 90pc male, will invariably lead to tedious "calm down, dear" responses to anyone who dares complain about the casual expunging of women from vast tracts of public life.

Happily, the advent of social media means that, increasingly, young women, fed up of politely waiting in the shadows to be noticed, are bypassing traditional media outlets and shaping public debate themselves.

Last week, disgusted by political inaction when it comes to Ireland's draconian abortion laws, comedian Gráinne Maguire opted for humour to hammer home her point, succeeding in shining a global media spotlight on the issue in the process.

Reasoning that if Irish politicians really want to regulate women's bodies then they should be given all the gory details, Ms Maguire began tweeting graphic details of her menstrual cycle to Enda Kenny.

Soon, thousands of women followed suit, clogging up the Taoiseach's twitter feed with endless tweets about menstrual blood, cramps, PMT and tampons. Having begun trending worldwide, the story was covered by media organisations as far afield as the US, Australia, and Japan.

Similarly, in an effort to highlight a luxury VAT rate applied to tampons, two English women stood outside parliament at the weekend with the crotches of their white pants stained in menstrual blood and signs that read, "periods are not a luxury".

Their small protest also went viral and was covered by media organisations all over the world, earning far more attention than any brief segment on a current affairs radio show.

Clearly, there are lots of vocal women out there with interesting things to say and lots of ideas on how best to express them.

The fact that people working in the media or the arts are unable to find them is an indictment of their own ineptitude, and not a reflection of women's ability to contribute to public discourse.

Irish Independent

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