Sunday 16 June 2019

Comment: Ní Bheoláin's courage may put a huge crack in that glass ceiling

Sharon Ni Bheolain with fellow RTE newscaster Bryan Dobson
Sharon Ni Bheolain with fellow RTE newscaster Bryan Dobson
John Downing

John Downing

At first glance, Phil Hogan is, by judgment of friend and foe, a rather unlikely feminist. But in July 2012, as environment minister, he delivered the most effective ever pro-women message to all political parties.

It was called the Electoral Political Funding Act and in simple terms it meant that parties which did not field 30pc of women candidates at the following election would lose half their taxpayer-backed funding.

There were local and national rows and even court cases. But a glance at the February 2016 general election results tells that the rule worked without too much conflict: a total of 35 women TDs were elected, with 19 newcomers, making for a 40pc increase in women TDs compared with the 2011 election.

The outcome showed a huge decrease in the number of women TDs coming through on the "widows and daughters ticket", winning a seat held by a dead male relative. It also showed a big number of counties with their "first ever woman TDs".

But at 22pc women TDs, we are far from gender parity and the number of women in Cabinet remains markedly low. On the other hand, the gender candidate quota goes to 40pc by 2023, perhaps two general elections away, making further progress likely. Yet, in the closely-allied business of media broadcasting, all does not appear to be so positive.

Following revelations by the BBC last week about alarming gaps in the pay of its male and female heavy-hitting broadcast names, the spotlight naturally fell upon RTÉ.

Now, it is rarely a good idea in any job to publicly air your grievances.

If you work in television, where the minutiae of your life can often fall under scrutiny, there are even more reasons for staying silent.

So, when the 'Sunday Independent' called RTÉ 'Six One News' presenter Sharon Ní Bheoláin, she replied with honesty, courage and skill about a continuing marked pay-gap between herself and co-presenter Bryan Dobson.

She summarised some good reasons why she might not comment - but concluded it would be "cowardly" not to respond given the importance of gender equality to the wider society.

"I believe that I am well remunerated. But for the record, my pay is still considerably less than Bryan's," Ms Ní Bheoláin summed up.

It is notable that you'll end up in court, and possibly in jail, if you do not give RTÉ its €160 yearly licence fee. Let's also note the station bosses insist that this €160 is not enough and more is needed.

RTÉ has many strengths, among them its journalists' insistence on the highest standards of transparency being applied to the handling of citizens' money. It has also produced some landmark broadcast pieces on inequality, including gender inequality.

But on these issues, the senior station management appears close to "do as I say, not as I do" territory.

In fact, it is upholding the citizens' right to know less and later.

Top 10 broadcasters' earnings are published every two years and when the figures are two years old. Thus, while we are promised new figures soon, the latest data we have relates to 2014.

We also rarely get a cogent explanation as to why some figures are so high. The station bosses talk vaguely about "market rates". But RTÉ's competitors are not in a position to pay so many heavy-hitting broadcasters such large sums of money.

There are also vague reflections that the national station's stars could relatively easily migrate to Britain where the population is larger, and rates for the very successful broadcasters are in the stratosphere. Well, there may be some merit in that argument.

But it assumes the broadcasters' skills are transferable to a somewhat different culture, and they have the character and luck to successfully swim in a much larger and more competitive pool.

Many managers would face that issue on a case-by-case basis.

National politics and public interest broadcasting are not the only places where women are paid less than their male counterparts. Neither are they the only sectors where fewer women make it to the top echelons of management. In fact, there are grounds for arguing that things are better in both Donnybrook and Leinster House compared with many other workplaces.

But that is to come at a very important debate from the entirely wrong end.

As Sharon Ní Bheoláin told the 'Sunday Independent': "Inequality and gender pay are key social issues and so it would be cowardly of me not to comment."

It will take such courage to break the glass ceiling.

Irish Independent

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