Saturday 18 November 2017

Comment: Newstalk and RTE aren't alone - most of the Irish media industry has a 'woman problem'

The recent outcry at gender imbalances in two of the country's leading broadcasters will have alerted female journalism students to an unwelcome reality: their sex will almost always disqualify them from a fair chance at a career

Sarah McInerney and Colette Fitzpatrick at the announcement of Newstalk’s autumn schedule last year - both have since left their day slots with the station. Photo: Maxwells
Sarah McInerney and Colette Fitzpatrick at the announcement of Newstalk’s autumn schedule last year - both have since left their day slots with the station. Photo: Maxwells

Dr Sarah Arnold and Dr Anne O’Brien

The furore around Newstalk's gender imbalance and RTÉ's gender pay gap in recent weeks provided an unwelcome window into the challenges waiting for female journalism graduates.

As freshers across the country start college how can we pretend to any one of the young women taking media or journalism courses that they have a fair chance at a career in Ireland?

Today’s media graduate might imagine a media industry full of opportunities across a range of media sectors, organisations and roles.  She will undoubtedly hear much talk of diversity, inclusivity and equality.

She will hear about the many ‘exceptional’ women who have ‘shattered the glass ceiling’ of the media industries. Nevertheless, no matter how talented, skilled, intelligent, hard-working she is, she will enter an industry that values none of these because the ‘problem’ of her sex will overshadow any of her accomplishments.

If she has learned anything in recent weeks, it is that her gender disqualifies her from a fair chance of a career in Irish media.

Recent focus on Newstalk’s gender imbalance will perhaps highlight for her the challenges faced by any woman who attempts a career as a radio presenter or DJ: She will face almost complete exclusion from presenting on daytime schedule on all of the national commercial radio stations. This significantly narrows her options relative to her male peers. Women who want their voices heard on radio have to battle against the odds.

Research has show that women get only 32pc of radio airtime. The situation is similar in flagship news and current affairs programmes on television. Prime Time’s General Election coverage in 2011 gave only 10pc of airtime to female contributors, RTÉ’s female staff got 15pc of airtime and the remaining 75pc went to men. If women’s voices are not heard on air in proportion to their presence in the population then we set up a dangerous status quo whereby it’s ‘normal’ for women to be silenced.

If women graduates decide to work in television or film they face similar gender imbalances to those in radio. The routines of screen production privilege traditionally masculine ways of working with expectations of long hours, complete availability, no flexibility and no acknowledgement of the disproportionate care burden that is carried by women in Ireland. 

This will not be perceived as a structural or institutional problem, It will be considered a ‘women’s issue’ or ‘her choice’ since it will be assumed that women opt to leave work because of motherhood - not because work environments are not suited to parenthood.

In addition, women will face a gender bias that questions their ability to do the work, their reliability in dealing with finance and budgets and their capacity to direct, much as women in Hollywood have documented for decades. Even after they direct or produce the highest grossing film of the summer – their ability to direct will constantly be questioned and they will have to prove themselves in a way that their male colleagues won’t.

If they make films about women this will be a ‘risky’ venture since women cannot embody or represent the universal and profound themes that a man ‘naturally’ can. They will make ‘women’s films.’ 

The best female students can hope for is that the Irish Film Board’s interventions will create a more equal industry. The board has pledged to achieve gender parity in the allocation of funding within three years and also recently announced a funding initiative for female-led film projects.

The young women who graduate from media courses in the next few years will also have to contend with the pay gap that still exists. Even in the state broadcaster  recently revealed figures show that almost three-quarters of those who earn more than €100,000-a-year are men. But more than half who earn less than €40,000 are women.

Despite some limited exceptions, like Independent.ie which has 50pc female participation, there's a clear and dominant trend of male lead outlets.

Whether in radio, television or print, women will generally spend their careers in organisations that are run by men, who still dominate in senior decision-making roles in Irish media industries. They hold 82pc of leadership positions. If women harbour any ambitions to edit a national newspaper title they will be one of not even a half dozen of women who have ever held that job in Ireland. Role models and sponsors will both be in short supply, except of course for RTE’s female Director General, also their first ever female DG, not exactly a fact to be celebrated in the year 2017.

Elsewhere there have been some positive developments including RTE's newly appointed Director General Dee Forbes - who is the first female DG to ever be appointed to the station.

There is a sense in the Irish media sector and society more broadly that gender inequality will eventually simply sort itself out - and it won’t.

If we merely wait for time to do the work, more women won’t get on air, we won’t get equal pay, we will be left to juggle care work and media work, we won’t get into management and we won’t change the situation for the better. Women have been attempting to do this since the late 1970s.

The female students of today face as tough a battle now as the generations before them the only difference is 50 years have passed. Why should these students wait another 50?

Dr Sarah Arnold & Dr Anne O’Brien lecture in Media Studies at Maynooth University

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