During the final weeks of the old normal, in the days when there was still a certain cold comfort to be had in gathering in tight huddles outside a funeral, hundreds of us congregated in the grounds of St Brigid's in Kill, Co Kildare.
It was one of those afternoons when the sun seemed to have set before it had risen and even the thickest parka wasn’t enough to shield you from the relentless southerly wind. We were there because – exactly two years ago this weekend – a woman had died unexpectedly. She was an adored sister, aunt, stepmother, friend to many. She was a mam and deeply loved “soul partner”. To me, she was a journalist I admired, a feminist, activist and role model. To the radio-listening public, she was simply Marian.
Marian Finucane’s death was the first of many unexpected losses that year and one of the last of the “normal” funerals – that strangely Irish mix of intimacy and community, private sorrow and public event. Reflecting on her legacy two years on, her achievements remain remarkable and unparalleled. What is perhaps even more astonishing, though, is how slowly real change came in her wake. Finucane was a trailblazer, but what followed was not so much a conquering army of other bright, opinionated women, but a slow and steady incursion.
There is a colossal gulf between what RTÉ's top earners make and what the average working journalist takes home, and that's particularly true... if you're a woman
When I embarked on a career as a journalist in the 1990s, Finucane was a household name, but a climate of prejudice and pure hokum still swirled around women in broadcasting. Studying for my master’s degree, I was dissuaded from a career in radio by someone in the media I respected. He took me aside and suggested I might not have “a voice for radio”. By which he meant that I had a woman’s voice.
I didn’t hold it against him. It was fair warning. In those days, opportunities for women behind the scenes were plentiful enough but women in front of the microphone were a rarity. This is because it was “well known” that radio listeners found women’s voices annoying. No specifics were offered to back this claim up, it was merely stated as a matter of certainty, as incontrovertible as “women don’t get promoted because they don’t want to be promoted” and “nobody watches women’s sport”. The claim was eventually traced back to a limited study published in a 1935 book. It was, of course, subsequently debunked, but it proved remarkably hard to shake off, perhaps because it suited some people’s purposes to believe it.
Still, society changed and so did the media, even if change came much more gradually than it should. Up until five or six years ago, there were still long stretches of the day when there were no women’s voices on national radio. That is no longer the case.
In 2022, there are bright, brilliant women fronting serious radio and television programmes at every hour. They talk about politics and business and occasionally they’re even allowed to talk about sport. They are sometimes adversarial and opinionated. The world has not stopped turning. Radio listenership figures remain healthy.
Things have improved on the surface but there is much more to be done. Even at the time of her death, as one of RTÉ’s best-paid presenters, Finucane was continuing to break the mould. There is a colossal gulf between what RTÉ’s top earners make and what the average working journalist or member of production staff takes home, and that’s particularly true, recent figures suggest, if you’re a woman.
The National Union of Journalists has been asking RTÉ to reveal median and mean salary data for its employees since a freedom of information request showed that, up to 2019, one in five women at RTÉ was earning less than €40,000, compared with one in 10 men. Nearly two in three women made less than €60,000. RTÉ's most recent statement on the matter is that it has provided the union with extensive gender pay data – just not "in the precise format sought".
There are influential women behind the scenes... but the public face of the pandemic response has been nearly exclusively male
If another major organisation was appearing to dodge the answer with references to "precise formats", the full weight of the Morning Ireland and Prime Time inquisitions would be unleashed on them. Regardless, from next year, gender pay gap legislation will require employers to publish details about their organisations, and then we'll see just how much things have really changed.
Let’s face it, we don’t need to wait to know the answer: not all that much. Women now have a seat at the microphone and in most areas of public life, but in a crisis, important men trust only other important men with the big decisions. Public health briefings during the pandemic have frequently felt like one long manel. Night after night, a changing cast of suited men at podiums told us about decisions that will affect all our lives for years, maybe decades. There are influential women behind the scenes – on the Taoiseach’s staff and in his department; on the National Public Health Emergency Team; in the Department of Health – but the public face of the pandemic response has been nearly exclusively male.
When the decision was made to mask children from third class up for instance, there were eight men in the room, and no women. And the lack of gender diversity is only the tip of the iceberg. Some of the groups in society worst affected by the fallout from the past two years – children, disadvantaged communities, Travellers, those born in countries other than Ireland – have been spoken to and about, but rarely heard.
You suspect, if she were still here, Marian Finucane would have a lot to say about the manels. The second anniversary of her death is an opportunity to reflect on how much society and public life have changed since she became a constant presence on the airwaves in the 1970s – and how little.