Thursday 22 August 2019

We're not doing ourselves any favours ladies - quotas just make men hate us

Forcing more women on to the airwaves is not the answer to inequality, writes Sarah Carey

Sarah Carey

Quotas. Quotas. Quotas. It's all about women and quotas these days.

Last week, female academics and journalists called on the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) to impose quotas on radio stations for women contributors. Whether it's politics, boards or radio panels, the Sisterhood is mad about quotas. I am not. Because quotas make men hate women more than they already do. Because when people think someone is in a position because they got help and not because they earned it, they've no respect for them. And because I don't want anyone telling me what to do. I work hard to get good contributors on my show on Newstalk and it's difficult enough without dealing with a stupid quota.

The recommendation was made in a publication called Hearing Women's Voices, which counted female voices on Newstalk and RTE Radio 1 over a three-week period last year.

The Irish Times reported that according to the survey, 81pc of the guests on George Hook's show on Newstalk, and 86pc on the station's breakfast show, are men. Colette Browne in the Irish Independent weighed in with the same statistics; adding that if there were more women on air, we'd all be talking about abortion. Because all women are pro-choice, obviously.

"Oh well," I shrugged. "'Tis the way of the world." And I went back to sweeping the floor.

Then Aoife, my producer, rang. "Wasn't that great about the survey? We did really well." "What?" "We came out tops!" she exclaimed and pointed me to a bar chart beside the article. And yes! In teeny-tiny writing below a soaring green bar (not pink - how subversive) was confirmation that our show had the highest number of women's voices. I'm not used to good news so, for a while, I worried there must've been a mistake.

Then I got to thinking. I topped the survey. Mary Wilson's Drivetime came second. How come the lady journalists didn't mention this? Instead, there were headlines about George Hook and photos of George Hook. The articles, which purported to be about women, were actually all about men. Mostly George Hook.

Leaving aside my precious feelings, this matters. Here's why.

Radio executives don't care about anything except the Joint National Listenership Research - the famous JNLRs you hear about every quarter. These numbers declare the audiences figures and, in turn, create the advertising rates charged for each programme. The survey is hopelessly unscientific because it's not based on verifiable on-the-fly monitoring like the Nielsen figures for television. It's based on memory.

Radio people know that listeners require constant reminders that a station, programme, and presenter exist. It's all about profile. If you keep talking about George Hook, people will remember that he has a show and might tune in. What's more, if you keep talking about him, they might even believe they listened, even if they didn't.

Just think, if someone asked you what you listened to last Sunday, there's a good chance you'd say Marian Finucane, even if you didn't. But you feel that you probably did because you definitely have at some point - because she's been doing that show since the dawn of time. Relentless promotion: that's the key to winning the JNLRs. Without station-backed promotion, the female-presented shows are depending on press mentions.

So, every time those righteous women complain about George Hook, all they're actually doing is promoting him and helping his JNLRs - the numbers used by Newstalk to justify their 100pc weekday male line-up.

And when they fail to mention the shows presented by women, you can sum up the handwringing in one word: counterproductive. Thanks girls. Being one of the few female presenters in Newstalk isn't easy. The occasional nod would be nice. And a non-sarcastic thank you to Eilis O'Hanlon in this paper who does mention the show from time to time. That really does help.

Of course, the other problem is contributors. To a large extent, it's true what the Women on Air campaigners say: if you dig beyond the usual suspects and work a bit harder, there are great women out there. I know because I've found them. But what I've also found is that women are much harder to get on than men.

Last week, when I took part in The Irish Times Women's Podcast hosted by Kathy Sheridan, she had the grace to admit she'd turned down several requests to come on my show. The reason? Huge inconvenience for precious little return.

That's fair enough. But does that mean that if the female print journalists want the BAI to mandate radio stations to have more women on their panels, they should also mandate women to say yes whenever they're asked? There are two sides to this.

I fully acknowledge that many researchers are lazy about seeking out new voices who might be boring. This, in turn, gives far too much power to the cliquey commentariat, by the way. But the solution is not a quota. It's much more simple than that. Ladies, if you're asked on, say yes and be brilliant.

Sunday Independent

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