Wednesday 18 September 2019

Other voices: Why are female broadcasters still in a minority?

Today FM's reshuffle underlines how precarious broadcasting can be. Are women still struggling to be heard? Larissa Nolan reports

Mairead Ronan has been handed the plum lunchtime slot at Today FM
Mairead Ronan has been handed the plum lunchtime slot at Today FM
Ireland’s foremost female broadcaster Miriam O’Callaghan
Louise Duffy is also departing Today FM in the station shakeup
Women On Air founder Margaret E Ward

Larissa Nolan

It's been an eventful week for anyone watching the progress of women in Irish broadcasting. On the one hand, 39-year-old Mairead Ronan was celebrating after she was handed the plum job of presenting the lunchtime show at Today FM.

But at the same time, Muireann O'Connell, who'd occupied the lunchtime slot for three years, was facing the reality that her own show had been axed.

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"Hello people" she tweeted, after the news was announced. "I have been fired from Today FM. It's all good. Look, it's embarrassing and I'm a bit sad, but I love almost everyone at the station and I wish them all the best."

And Muireann was not the only woman to go; another prominent female colleague, Louise Duffy, host of Lost In Music, the station's evening music show, is also departing. The 7pm slot will now be occupied by Today FM stalwart Ed Smith.

The changes at the station are a reminder that broadcasting is an often cut-throat business. And it can be particularly challenging for women; male voices still outnumber female ones by two to one in Irish broadcasting, according to the Women On Air movement.

A 2015 study by the National Women's Council and DCU showed that you could turn on the radio in Ireland and wonder where all the women were. They only contributed to 28pc of broadcast time on current affairs shows.

Have we made any progress since then? Miriam O'Callaghan, Ireland's foremost female broadcaster, believes we have.

"I think we truly have progressed," says the Prime Time and Sunday With Miriam host. "I've always said, in my own career, it has not stopped me at any stage, and a lot of my promotion was by men. That has been my experience in both the BBC and RTÉ.

"I know on Prime Time we go to great lengths to achieve equality. We are aware of the importance of it and we work really hard to strike a gender balance. But you find you can ring a guy at night, a politician perhaps, and he will come in late without much notice, and women are very slow to come in at short notice. And that is an issue."

Miriam says she understands how off-putting online trolls can be, all too ready to criticise women - more often than men - on their hair or their clothes.

"I think we just have to start saying 'yes'. I don't like broad generalisations, but I think a lot of the time when you ask a man onto the show he will say: 'Yes! I'll go for it! What have I got to lose?'

"A woman tends to doubt herself too much, and we worry and question our own abilities. We need to start taking the attitude of: 'What's the worst than can happen?' We need to step up to the plate ourselves when it comes to saying yes to opportunities more often."

Award-winning journalist, communications expert and entrepreneur Margaret E Ward is not so optimistic. Margaret founded the Women on Air movement in 2010, a community of like-minded men and women who want to hear and see more women on television and radio. It helps women develop the skills, confidence and contacts to further opportunities in broadcasting.

Ward says: "I wouldn't think there has been any progress. There has been an increase in awareness, which is certainly better. I think people are braver now in calling out 'manels' (all-male panels) and saying: 'This is totally wrong, there are no women on this panel' or questioning: 'Why is there only one woman on this panel?' That's a good thing. Awareness is better but I don't think the numbers have budged as much."

She believes there can be an unhealthy habit of using the same female panellists as the "token woman", effectively paying lip service to gender balance.

"A lot of shows are under-resourced. They're under time pressure. There's a lack of training for researchers. When I was an editor, I used to say to my team: 'I want you to find me five new names' every week, and that's a pretty basic thing. Go to events, meet people, look up university websites and find new people behind studies. Ask for a different voice, say to groups: 'I know we had Joe Bloggs on last week, so can we have Josephine Bloggs on this week?'" she says.

In some places, this is changing - she cites RTÉ as an example, where the state broadcaster has put in diversity and inclusion policies.

Ward believes that many girls can be raised to shy away from confrontation, and this goes on into adult life. "Current affairs panels can involve confrontation, and women don't like confrontation. You can learn how to do it. Debating in schools is a great way to nurture this skill."

We're also less likely to put ourselves forward. "Men with zero expertise will tell you they should be on a panel, yet a female with a PhD in a subject would tell you they needed a week to prepare. We tend to insist on perfection," she says. Ward was the researcher who debunked the myth that "listeners prefer men" - but it persists nonetheless.

She found the misconception that men are easier on the ear stems from a book written in 1939 called The Psychology of Radio, that featured a small sample survey finding men's voices were preferred, but this was down to gender stereotypes at the time.

However, it is not so far removed from numerous theoretically sound studies that show people do prefer lower register voices when it comes to serious matters, viewing them as more "authoritative".

The finding is that if you want to lead like a boss - speak like a man. Lower voices, in both men and women, are understood to be stronger and more competent.

In Britain, the classics philosopher and presenter Mary Beard has said the authority in broadcasting still resides with "men in suits with deep voices" saying: "They're the types we assume we'll see for words of wisdom."

According to Beard: "It's not a coincidence that the successful women in broadcasting have deep voices. Lower register voices are perceived as more authoritative. I suspect, but don't know, that when these voices aren't 'natural', women in public positions get encouraged, as Margaret Thatcher was, to go down a register."

According to Roisin Duffy, the current chairperson of Women on Air, strong, intelligent, female voices on air are vital for shaping the future of the country. She believes the airwaves often inform the national debate and become the first stage in public policy.

With that in mind, it is empowering to acknowledge that many of our leading shows are anchored by women. Keelin Shanley and Caitríona Perry host the Six One News and Sharon Ní Bheoláin presents the Nine O'Clock News on RTÉ. Miriam O'Callaghan and Claire Byrne are most prominent in current affairs. In RTÉ radio, there's Áine Lawlor, Marian Finucane, Mary Wilson and Katie Hannon, and Dee Forbes is the Director General at the station.

In commercial stations, there's Ciara Kelly, Sarah McInerney, Colette Fitzpatrick and Claire Brock, and the chairperson of Communicorp - which owns Today FM and Newstalk - is Lucy Gaffney.

And maybe it's better to take the positive attitude of broadcaster Maggie Doyle, Ryan Tubridy's summer stand-in.

"In a way, it is a unique selling point to be a woman - not just in radio, but across a lot of different areas. I hope it would stand to me. I don't go forward thinking: 'As a woman, I'm going to do this or that'. I hope my attitude is progress."

Irish Independent

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