Cantillon: RTÉ’s Noel Curran keeps balance in gender debate

Desire for gender equality is useless without ‘pretty bloody-minded’ implementation

It is a measure of how far the gender balance debate has come that a male director general of RTÉ soon to hand over to its first female one can still reasonably expect to be asked at a public event if there is a glass ceiling in RTÉ.

To the credit of Noel Curran (pictured), RTÉ's departing chief, his answer to the question when it was asked by academic Kevin Rafter, was both direct and apologetic: "In RTÉ, we do not have enough women at senior level. We don't."

Curran, who was speaking on the future of public broadcasting at Dublin City University to mark his appointment as adjunct professor, did go on to note that RTÉ was chaired by a woman, Moya Doherty, and that his successor Dee Forbes would become one of three women on the executive board.

But there was little sense of "problem solved". And, as many of the attendees at this weekend's Women in Media conference in Ballybunion will know from experience, the problem of gender imbalance is not confined to the boardroom.

Women in Irish media tend to be under-represented – sometimes severely so – at the “marzipan layer”, or the pay grades just below board level. The phenomenon of the “sticky floor”, where female employees are rooted to junior positions for so long that they eventually get the message and leave, is a familiar one.

On the “women on air” issue, Curran said RTÉ had made “great strides” (starting from a point in 2012 when 2fm’s Monday-Thursday female DJ count was zero).

“We made those strides because we said, ‘no, we are just going to change this’,” he said, the secret being to “put a strategy in place” and then “be pretty bloody-minded about implementing it”.

And implementation is the key here.

Lip service to gender equality is not only useless to women, it is patronising and hypocritical and leaves them with less money in their pockets than their male co-workers.

Of RTÉ’s overall score on gender equality, Curran said: “There is no point in me defending something that is not as it should be.”

So, yes, the gender balance debate has advanced, but gender balance itself? Less so.