‘Crucially important’ more expert women are heard in media, event hears

Professionals asked to participate publicly should ‘step up to address the challenge’

More female experts should put themselves forward to contribute to the public debate, but there is an onus too on the media to ensure coverage is gender balanced. That was a key message at an event highlighting the importance of hearing a variety of professional women’s voices in the media, particularly when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic.

A general practitioner on RTÉ’s Operation Transformation and a lecturer at the Royal College of Surgeons (RCSI), Dr Sumi Dunne said any woman who is asked to participate in the media should “step up to address the challenge”.

“If the day is going to be really clinically busy, it may not be the day for me to rise to a media request . . . If I am going to say no, I will amplify the voices of two or three female colleagues,” she said.

Women and people from ethnic minorities or other marginalised groups are also underrepresented in the press meaning they are missing from the public conversation and, in turn, policy decisions, she said.

“Ireland is changing and we are moving into a much more diverse sphere . . . It is absolutely right for us to platform and champion people from other backgrounds,” she added.

It is “crucially important” more women are heard on the airwaves, according to Noelle O’Reilly, a spokeswoman for the campaign Women on Air. Often the first draft of policy takes place in the media, and women are not sufficiently part of that conversation.

The organisation is urging the Department of Media to implement quotas that would require RTÉ to ensure a certain proportion of their guests are women. The quotas should start with a 40:60 female to male ratio because “we are not near 40 per cent currently”, Ms O’Reilly said.

“If there is an onus on them to have a percentage of women on their programmes, they will do it . . . We will be all dead and gone by the time it has happened naturally.”

‘Fear of the peer’

Speaking at the RCSI event, Science Foundation Ireland’s director of science for society Dr Abigail Ruth Freeman said there is a “double barrier” to getting more women on air from the male-dominated field of science. There is also a “fear of the peer” phenomenon in the industry, which leads people to focus on the knowledge they lack rather than what they have to offer, she said.

“There can be a fear that as a scientist [. . .] that you are expected to be encyclopedic . . . That’s never realistic for everyone. Some of it is about building confidence,” she said.

Dr Susan Smith, professor of primary care medicine at the RCSI, said key pandemic decisions are being made in “gendered ways”. She said it was “extraordinary” that the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) made an announcement on Thursday evening about a small number of potential cases of Covid-19 related stillbirths. It is an example of a decision being made without the input of the people who are going to be affected, she said.

“To me, it is extraordinary that somebody didn’t anticipate that would cause huge anxiety among pregnant women . . . Why didn’t they have an obstetrician there – and preferably a woman obstetrician – to talk about the existing evidence,” Prof Smith said.

Professor Sam McConkey, associate professor at the RCSI, said he could understand why someone would be reluctant to put themselves into the spotlight. He said he has received “very negative criticism” since appearing in the media in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic. The abuse was not just online and included death threats and calls to his work phone that were “very personalised, threatening and intimidating”.

“You really are sticking your neck out . . . It is relatively traumatic and it is not necessarily something that anyone would want,” he said.