Monday 15 October 2018

Lights, camera... cut! Where are all the women?

As the opening credits rolled during my recent presenting gig on TV3's Tonight With Vincent Browne show, my thoughts turned briefly to the internet snipers waiting to take aim and shoot me down.

These trolls, who I visualise as men (for it's mostly men) sitting at home in their underpants with their six packs (not of the muscled kind), take a certain glee in stalking internet boards and chat rooms to undermine women who dare to take to the air and express an opinion.

The instant Twitter response to my stepping out as a stand-in presenter was overwhelmingly positive. The tweets also praised TV3 for trying new faces and taking wild-card gambles on samples of the more deadly species like me during Vincent's annual summer sojourn.

Those who take up the invitation to appear on television, a task that it is much harder than it looks, have to be prepared for both the plaudits and criticism that inevitably flow from such appearances.

I have, like many TV contributors (male and female), been subjected to vitriolic abuse from anonymous online commentators.

The abuse, from internet trolls who I imagine wouldn't have the balls to speak into a hairbrush let alone a studio mic, invariably relates to back-of-the-toilet door commentary about my appearance.

I've been castigated as a "token chick", berated for doubling in size and/or reducing my body weight by half, often on the same thread. Ditto on the hair colour, with before and after shots pulled from the net as evidence of my apparent crimes.

But my fleeting experience of online venom -- I won't dignify some of the more malicious and misogynistic tirades by repeating them -- is nothing compared to what some other female contributors have suffered.

Women such as businesswomen and journalist Margaret E Ward, founder of Women on Air, an Irish initiative aimed at increasing women's representation on television and radio.

Ward, a no-nonsense New Yorker whose parents are Irish and was partly raised here, has been threatened with rape and sexual violence in online comments following television appearances, notably on Tonight with Vincent Browne.

So much for moderation of user-generated websites.

This base sexism and intense scrutiny of a woman's appearance, permanently recorded on the web, may help explain why some women are reluctant to raise their head above the parapet and appear on television. The issue was thrown into the spotlight this week when Steve Carson, head of television at RTÉ, was criticised by a delegate at a conference marking the 50th anniversary of RTÉ Television.

Lucy Keaveney, an equality advocate, complained during a question and answer session that RTÉ suffers from male arrogance.

Keaveney told Carson, husband of Prime Time host Miriam O'Callaghan -- arguably Ireland's most influential woman in television -- that the broadcaster does not feature enough women in programmes.

Carson, somewhat caught on the hop, acknowledged that gender balance was an issue at RTÉ, agreed there were not enough women on television and said plans were under way to address the problem.

The remark surprised some well-known women in Donnybrook, who insist that the perception of poor female representation at the country's largest TV network is much different than the reality.

They point to the success of Una O'Hagan, Eileen Dunne, Sharon Ní Bheoláin and the recently retired Ann Doyle in the TV newsroom. Or Miriam on Prime Time and women such as Rachael English, Mary Wilson, Marian Finucane and Marian Richardson dominating the top 10 list of our radio shows.

So what is the truth? Is 50pc of the population really badly served by our broadcasters? Do women let the side down by refusing to appear on television? Or does the purported deficit of women just reflect a broader societal lack of women in Irish public life?

It's complicated, according to Miriam O'Callaghan, who has a picture of the UN Security Council on her office wall -- a sardonic nod to the fact that the only woman in the photo is an interpreter.

O'Callaghan has defied almost every myth about women in the media, standing as she does on the shoulders of trailblazing broadcasters such as Siobhan Crowley, Lelia Doolan, Una Claffey, Olivia O'Leary and Mary McAleese, to name but a few.

If there aren't enough women on TV, O'Callaghan says it is symptomatic of a broader lack of representation of women in public life, especially in politics where Ireland lags behind sub-Saharan countries.

"It's not just the media, look at every walk of life and you will see a sea of men," says the mother of eight.

O'Callaghan -- a staunch advocate of getting women on air-- but who does not believe in positive discrimination to tick gender boxes -- acknowledges that some women are turned off by the adversarial nature of challenging television debates, especially live ones.

"We [women] don't have testosterone. The atmosphere can be charged and some women baulk at the idea of being savaged by someone else."

Margaret E Ward blames the gender deficit, in part, on a lack of confidence and says that Irish women have been culturally conditioned to "keep the head down" and take a back seat to men.

"The real reason that there are not enough women on air and elsewhere is because the priority is to maintain the status quo, which is male-dominated," says Ward.

"A woman with an opinion is viewed as a dangerous thing."

Ward founded Women on Air in 2010 to address the gender imbalance on Ireland's airwaves, providing seminars and training for women. The 1,000-strong network has female academics, scientists, economists, engineers and lawyers in its midst.

Ironically, it was turned down this year for a €4,000 small business grant by the Equality Authority, just as the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) published details of a survey which revealed that fewer than a quarter of voices on air are women.

The 2012 survey was conducted by Lucy Keaveney and Dolores Gibbons on behalf of the National Women's Council of Ireland. The survey and subsequent submissions to the BAI, by the women's council, have been challenged by TV and radio host Matt Cooper, who insists that women are not excluded from national debate -- and says that it is the quality of guest, not gender, which determines who gets on the air.

Ward, a businesswoman as well as a broadcaster, describes some of the online threats she received as "terrrifying". But she says women need to be less sensitive and more willing to take the knocks that can accompany encounters on TV.

Senior producers admit that it can be more difficult to persuade women to go on television.

"Many women, when you do contact them, want to over-prepare or take time to get their hair done, but they need to be oven-ready," said one senior RTÉ figure. It is a phenomenon that affects producers throughout the country who struggle to get women to enter a highly-exposed arena.

O'Callaghan, who has four boys and four girls, observes that when girls are young, you imagine they will run the world. At a certain point, many women would rather run a bath.

"Something happens along the way," she says. "Yes, women impose their own glass ceilings, but it is true that we are subject to a whole level of criticism that men are not."

Elaborating on his impromptu remarks at the conference in Cork, Carson says that RTÉ has an obligation, as a public service broadcaster, to reflect all of Irish society.

"It is not just a gender issue, it is about age and other factors such as region," says Carson who points out that RTÉ has a wealth of women working as presenters, correspondents, executive producers and researchers.

Carson says that it is frustrating for production teams who are "uneasy" if they end up going to air with an all -male panel. But he points to the difficulty of reflecting the fact that women constitute 50pc of the population.

"Fifty per cent of key decision makers are not women," says Carson, who added that the lack of women in RTÉ is not an excuse, but a challenge for RTÉ in the next five years.

Dearbhail McDonald is

the Irish Independent's

Legal Editor

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