Organised campaign needed to get more women's voices on radio and television


ANALYSIS:Surveys show a glaring absence of female voices on our three national radio stations

BARACK OBAMA said recently “women are not an interest group . . . they’re half of this country”. And in an Irish Times article last month, Laura Slattery suggested that media content needs a sex change, pointing out that “women are not a special interest group. We are not a minority”.

In Ireland, women make up 51 per cent of the population, yet they are marginalised both in politics and the media. Steps are being taken to address this in the political arena by the introduction of gender quotas. What steps are being taken in radio and television to address the fact that fewer than a quarter of the voices we hear on current affairs programmes are those of women?

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland draft code requires “fairness, impartiality and accountability” in news and current affairs programmes.

Is the broadcast media fair in its treatment of women? To ascertain the scale of the problem I carried out two surveys, the first over 10 days in September and

October 2010 followed by a second, with the help of equality advocate Dolores Gibbons, over seven days in March 2012.

Both surveys recorded the names of contributors (ie voices heard) to current affairs programmes across the three national radio stations.

So what were the results? Starting with RTÉ and looking at Morning Ireland’s figures for female input, the percentages remained static at 26 per cent in both 2010 and 2012. In other words, just over a quarter of those who appeared on the programme were women.

On Today with Pat Kenny, the proportion of women contributors increased from 20 per cent in the 2010 survey to 31 per cent in March. These would include women prominent in areas such as cookery and consumer affairs. The News at One programme was surveyed only in March 2012, and a mere 15 per cent of those contributing were women. On Thursday, March 1st, no female voice was heard on the programme.

Drive Time with Mary Wilson dropped from having a female participation rate of 27 per cent in 2010 to 16 per cent in 2012. Over a seven-week period this year, Marian Finucane maintained a ratio of four men to one woman for her review of the Sunday papers.

The female participation rate on the Newstalk Breakfast programme disimproved from 28 per cent in 2010 to 22 per cent in 2012. The Newstalk Lunchtime programme for 2012 comes in at 20 per cent female input. The Right Hook went from 19 per cent up to 30 per cent. The Sunday Show improved from 21 per cent to 29 per cent, replicating the pattern of one woman per panel.

The problem with having only one woman on these panels, apart from it appearing tokenistic, is that women are often shouted down and drowned out, especially during heated debate.

In the 2010 survey, Matt Cooper’s The Last Word programme recorded a 17 per cent contribution rate for women, while the 2012 figure rose to 21 per cent.

Women are educated, articulate, are at all levels of the workforce, pay taxes and buy television licences. Yet they are marginalised into stereotypical roles across all stations. Frequently women feature in scripted news reading, traffic and weather reports and reporting items for mostly male anchors.

At the recent TV50 conference held in Cork, I asked RTÉ’s director of programmes, Steve Carson, about plans to address the gender balance problem. His reply gives some hope for the future. Quoted in The Irish Times on Monday, September 10th, he said: “I agree there are not enough women on air . . . I don’t buy the argument that it’s hard to find women. Well, doing hard things is what we’re all paid for.”

This argument has been used too often in the past by senior management to excuse the inexcusable. Another defence RTÉ management has used in the past was to point to the high numbers of females behind the scenes – engaged in editing, research and production. This is a weak argument and is not a good enough excuse for the absence of women’s voices on the airwaves.

As Clara Fischer, of the Irish Feminist Network wrote: “Women’s exclusion, particularly from current affairs programmes, results in skewed debates, where only men’s life experiences come to bear upon the issues in question.”

British broadcaster Bidisha has said “the only solution is female solidarity . . . any broader change will have to come from women organising around issues – such as the boycott of male-dominated panels for instance”. Many are doing this already as individuals but could an organised campaign happen here?

Lucy Keaveney is a retired teacher. In 2011 she established the Countess Markievicz School

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