‘Deeply ingrained cultural prejudice’ behind RTÉ pay gap

Analysis: how will the national broadcaster address its gender pay issue?

The unspoken assumption is that there are just more talented broadcasters to be found among men than women. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

The unspoken assumption is that there are just more talented broadcasters to be found among men than women. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

“This is something women talk about all the time in the corridors and over coffee in RTÉ, ” says one female employee who does not wish to be named about the gender pay gap at the national broadcaster.

There is still reticence among many staff about speaking out on the issue, but that seems to be changing.

Newsreader Sharon ni Bheolain has pointed to the gap between her salary and that of her co-anchor, Bryan Dobson. And political correspondent Martina Fitzgerald has written an opinion piece for this newspaper demanding greater transparency on the issue.

Gender inequality in broadcasting has been in the spotlight since controversy erupted at the BBC last week over the striking disparity between the number of men and women who earned more than £150,000 there.

When that debate spilled across the Irish Sea, however, the only hard information that was publicly available was the list published annually (albeit with a two-year timelag) of how much RTÉ ’s top ten broadcasters earned.

It is now anticipated that the list for 2015 will be published early next month, following this week’s commitment from RTÉ to expedite the process. It’s a crude measure, but for the moment it’s the only one available to measure gender disparities.

And it does have some value, since every recent survey of workplace gender inequality, from the Waking the Feminists report in June on Irish theatre to last week’s Higher Education Authority breakdown of academic grades, shows that the higher you go up an institutional hierarchy, the more glaring the gender inequality becomes.

With the most recent top ten showing only two women on RTE’s list (Marian Finucane and Miriam O’Callaghan), that pattern seems clear here too.

Standard defence

The standard defence against accusations of discrimination is that talent rises to the top. The unspoken assumption underpinning that proposition is that there are just more talented broadcasters to be found among one half of the population than the other. “It’s a deeply ingrained cultural prejudice across broadcasting, and it’s not confined to men,” says the employee.

But is gender inequality an issue across RTÉ as a whole, or is it particularly acute when it comes to the big names in front of the camera or behind the microphone? After all, there are many women working in senior roles in production across radio and television.

“We need to know what we’re talking about here first,” says RTÉ’s education correspondent Emma O’Kelly who chairs the Dublin Broadcasting section of the National Union of Journalists, which has demanded an external review of employment contracts and practices at the broadcaster.

Women’s organisations have lobbied for years for better on-air gender balance. And all the available research indicates that the gender pay gap is a problem across all Irish media. O’Kelly believes that female broadcasters are often held to a higher standard or criticised for their appearance in a way that never happens to men. “But if you take that paradigm of what makes a great broadcaster, women have shown a great capacity for filling that role.”

With a wide variety of different types of contracts used for employees across the organisation, there is a question of how meaningful such data would be, but O’Kelly has no doubt. “We are very aware of the complexity of the grading system in RTÉ, but we believe it is possible to produce this information,” she says. She points to last week’s third-level report.

“The publication of the figures was probably very embarrassing for the HEA, but it did a good job, and that’s important.” She emphasises that the most important information is hard data on rates of remuneration, “as a whole, not just salaries”, in order to establish what the gap actually is. “I’ve been told they will get back to me by the end of the week on that,” she says.

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