There has been a lot of talk about Newstalk’s all-male dawn to dusk weekday schedule, which the station has been repeatedly criticised for, and rightly so. But while Newstalk is being hung out to dry, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking it is an isolated sexist entity. The Irish media needs to take a long hard look at itself.
The most recent study – a survey of gender balance in the Irish and UK media carried out by DCU's Institute for the Future of Journalism as part of the Global Media Monitoring Project in 2015 – sets out the scale of the problem.
It found that women struggle to comprise even a third of media professionals, with radio being the least inclusive of women media professionals.
Gender stereotypes were much in evidence in relation to age, so that women announcers and presenters mostly fell within the 35-49 age bracket with only 11 per cent over 50.
Women were better represented on TV but this "mirrors other research which has noted the popular pairing of attractive younger presenter with the avuncular older male, the latter reporting the main news stories with the female side-kick rounding off the human interest stories", according to the report.
I know plenty of female journalists, broadcasters, and other media workers, who have been sidelined over the years, mistreated, paid less, skipped over for promotion, who have had to deal with sexist remarks and online gendered abuse, who are patronised and have their opinions on sexism countered because some people just don’t want to hear them.
Men working in the media have the privilege of never having to consider how their gender might negatively impact their career's progression
Definitely the most frequent topic of conversation among women in the industry is sexism. These chats could be with a young woman just recently entering the industry, or with a household name. Perhaps we could be at fault for keeping many of these conversations to ourselves, in WhatsApp threads and the women’s loos and afterwork drinks. But we haven’t. Many women in media have been highlighting these issues for entire careers, yet meaningful change isn’t happening.
Looking at areas in Ireland that have made progress in terms of female representation in recent years, politics, theatre and film come to mind. In politics, quotas were introduced, an excellent organisation Women For Election formed, and female representation is increasing. In theatre, it took a movement – Waking The Feminists – to spur the arts sector into self-examination and improvement. In film, the Irish Film Board implemented a gender-equality six-point plan addressing the issue of gender imbalance in Irish films, and last week outlined the details of enhanced production funding for female writers and directors.
The common denominator with the examples above is they face up to a reality, recognise there is an issue, and address it with actions that actually mean something, and with real targets and commitments. If those actions seem alarmingly interventionist (and they might to those who don’t suffer or notice discrimination in their own industry, or deny its existence), that just goes to show how much work we need to do to ensure that women can succeed on merit alone. It’s the situation that requires the intervention that’s alarming, not the intervention itself.
Men working in the media have the privilege of never having to consider how their gender might negatively impact their career’s progression. They don’t have to think about what will happen to their careers when they become parents. They don’t experience the isolation of being “the only one” at a meeting. They don’t experience the deflating feeling of looking at male-majority radio schedules, or reading or hearing sexist points of view dressed up as “content”. They have endless role models. They can see it and be it all over the industry. Of course, men get messed around by media companies, but generally this is for a variety of reasons, sometimes unfair ones, none of which are because they are men.
More and more people are speaking out about sexism and misogyny, and rightly so. For the media, addressing it isn’t just the right thing to do. Sexism is bad for business. It insults our audiences. It denies our readers and listeners and viewers the representation and depth and variety of views and voices they deserve. It also shortens and disrupts careers of women who have to expend energy and time countering it year in year out. This stress and strain is real and exhausting, but we have the power to change it, and we have to start now.