Martina Fitzgerald: Debate over gender pay equality at RTÉ an issue for all women

If employers had to publish their pay data they would soon be forced to change their ways

News presenter Sharon n Ní Bheoláin has said she is paid “considerably less” than co-presenter Bryan Dobson.

News presenter Sharon n Ní Bheoláin has said she is paid “considerably less” than co-presenter Bryan Dobson.

 

As RTÉ’s political correspondent, my job is to observe, to report and to shed light on political issues. On the issue of gender pay equality I also want transparency. And, like many of my media colleagues, I cannot be an observer on this issue.

The ongoing controversies over gender pay at the BBC – and also in the Irish media – raise important issues. The focus on salaries of well-known broadcasters may not seem like a rallying campaign for the masses. But, to my mind, it should be.

If prominent women in the industry I work in can trigger a wider public and long overdue debate – and affect change – then by our actions other women may also benefit. This is irrespective of what industry they are employed in.

Let’s be clear – gender pay equality is not a political issue. It’s a legal right. Ireland has had equal pay legislation for more than 40 years – the average length of a working career.

Almost two decades ago, the legal right to equal pay for Irish men and women was recognised in law. So the protections are there. Legally. Shamefully, however, in 2017, this right is not a reality for many women in many workplaces in this country.

We know that at a national level the gender pay gap is said to be about 14 per cent in Ireland. Women with the same qualifications doing the same jobs get paid less than their male counterparts.

This gender pay disparity cannot be brushed aside with arguments such as length of service. It is only in recent times that increasing numbers of women have attained senior positions in their career areas. If length of service is allowed to be the main factor in determining pay women will never close the pay gap with men.

Fairness

In recent days, RTÉ has been the focus of debate about the fairness of gender pay in the media sector. RTÉ has committed to review gender pay across the organisation. This is a welcome and important response. The release of information about the pay of some of RTÉ’s top broadcasters naturally attracts curiosity. As someone whose salary is a long way from those six figure sums, I am as curious as everyone else. But we need to move beyond criticising RTÉ.

This debate should not be about a single organisation. A Dublin City University report last year showed that the principle of “equal pay for equal work” was not evident in Irish journalism as a whole. Nor should this debate be confined to one sector. We need to know the extent of the gender pay disparity in workplaces across the Irish economy.

For many women, the revelations about how the BBC values its key broadcast staff only revealed what we have long suspected but could not prove. There remains in many sectors in 2017 a gender glass ceiling in terms of what women are paid compared to their male counterparts who are doing the same job.

To my mind, how an organisation deals with the issue of gender pay disparities – and what it pays its female workforce ultimately reveals how it values them. The bottom line in black and white on the BBC ledger is that two-thirds of its “stars “earning more than £150,000 are male. This reality is impossible to defend.

We do not know the extent of pay disparities in the workplace in Ireland. From my own perspective, I suspect people would be genuinely shocked at the huge gaps that exist in individual companies. Information is, therefore, essential if this deep unfairness is to be tackled.

Lest we forget, the BBC was forced to reveal pay disparities by the British government. Access to this damning information did not emerge from a voluntary disclosure.

I believe that if employers – in both the public and private sectors here – were forced to publish the same information as the BBC – they would come under huge pressure to change their ways. It is not just about legal pressures. The court of public opinion would judge them harshly. No employer wants to be named and shamed for paying a man more than woman for no justifiable reason.

Legislation change is likely to drive greater transparency. There are initial moves afoot here, and more advanced ones in other European countries, forcing businesses of a certain size to publish data on gender pay.

Businesses and organisations in the public and private sectors should not wait for legislation to force them to publish gender pay information. They should volunteer the data now.

With that information we could have a more informed debate and – 40 years after equal pay was recognised in law – finally set about making it a reality.

Martina Fitzgerald has worked for RTÉ for 14 years and has been political correspondent since October 2013. She writes in a personal capacity.

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