Margaret E Ward: Irish media has a problem with women

Women make up fewer than one-third of Irish media professionals, even less at top level. How can the industry report on society if it doesn’t reflect it, asks Margaret E Ward
Margaret E Ward: Irish media has a problem with women

Margaret E Ward 

Historians use newspapers and media clips to study the past and how we lived in it. 

But if any of us analysed Irish media today what might we find? 

Whose opinions, experiences, and interests are reflected in the pages of national newspapers, during the radio segments that shape public opinion and on influential TV programmes? 

Does this snapshot truly represent Irish society? Whose voices are missing or underrepresented? Why?

These questions, and concerns about increasingly sexist and racist media commentary in the US, UK, and Europe, led to the recent founding of the Equality Expert Group in Ireland

We are former journalists, politicians, campaigners, policy wonks, and entrepreneurs who think the Irish media can and must do better in terms of representation.

Irish media has a woman problem and they can’t claim they don’t know about it. 

Over the last 10 years, voluntary campaigning groups such as Women on Air,

Women for Election,Sounding the Feminists and now Covid Women’s Voices and WhyNotHer? have been raising the red flag with data and evidence: women are largely missing from media’s senior management, newsrooms, opinion pages and coverage.

Their response? Deafening silence.

Holding a mirror to the media

Sure, some organisations and individuals have made changes, notably RTÉ which developed a gender diversity policy and appointed a diversity and inclusion lead and TV3’s Vincent Browne who insisted on a 50/50 gender balance on his programmes when he was still on air. 

A few individual public service presenters have quietly followed his lead. But tinkering around the edges is just not good enough for representative democracy and it’s also not good for business.

The Future of Media Commission is currently exploring the challenges and opportunities for public service media and providers. 

We think media diversity and representation are a key part of the solution and our submission this week reflected these views.

Women make up 51% of the population but represent only about 25% of those heard, seen or read in the news.

During times of crisis, such as Covid and the financial crash this figure can plummet to as little as 8%, according to research done by Prof Kevin Rafter of DCU.

When times are hard, women’s opinions and experiences don’t seem to matter. 

Yet women tend to be the ones most catastrophically affected — financially, physically, and emotionally. 

We have witnessed that with the domestic violence pandemic and seen the stark reality faced by those working for low wages on the frontlines of healthcare, childcare, retail, and hospitality.

Behind the scenes, things aren’t much better. 

The Global Media Monitoring Project, last published in 2015, revealed that women struggle to comprise even a third of media professionals here. 

Six years on, worrying numbers of women have left their senior media management and staff positions in national newspaper newsrooms, commercial radio, and TV stations. This is a matter of profound concern.

It’s the duty of journalists and the media to ask tough questions and to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. 

Perhaps now is the time to take a hard look within the media and ask why it’s such an unwelcoming place for women. Who benefits from their silencing?

Media commentary and debate often shape the first draft of public policy. When half the population (and more when we include minority groups) is excluded from this vital space, then our needs, concerns and voices are ignored. 

In turn, this affects our lives, our community and wider society as policy decisions are designed to meet the needs of the few, instead of the many.

Nobody should be beyond scrutiny, particularly those in the media who can exert a dramatic influence on our lives. Yet, we don’t have the full picture on diversity in the media; we only have data snapshots and anecdotal experience.

Mapping inequality

So, what can we do to ensure Irish media better reflects modern society? 

At a minimum, the State should hold media providers to account by funding and overseeing a triple-lock system of regular tracking, measuring, and reporting on diversity. What gets measured, gets done.

All media should be obliged to regularly and publicly furnish — in their reporting to regulators and their annual accounts — details of its monitoring of, and compliance with, gender equality and inclusion measures. 

This public scorecard approach is transforming corporate boardrooms thanks to Balance for Better Business and ensuring our European officials are more accountable thanks to European Movement Ireland.

Senator Ivana Bacik conducted a report into the barriers women face getting involved in politics. 
Senator Ivana Bacik conducted a report into the barriers women face getting involved in politics. 

Several years ago, Senator Ivana Bacik conducted a seminal report into the barriers to women who want to get involved in politics. 

She found the 5Cs — confidence, cash, culture, childcare, and candidate selection — and the group Women for Election has been working on breaking them down ever since.

We call for a similar study to reveal the barriers that women and minorities face in entering the media and the issues that may disproportionately force them out of the profession in their 30s and 40s.

The good news is that we do not need to reinvent the wheel to improve gender equity in, and across, the media. The technology to track and trace already exists. 

So, too, does the expertise of the Central Statistics Office which can be used to level the playing field by adding its monitoring heft to gender equality, across media.

Internationally, there are many models we can follow. The BBC’s 50:50 Equality Project is creating content that fairly represents our world and simple editorial tools from the Financial Times automatically warn if an article quotes too many men.

Some of these ideas don’t require new budgets, just targets, leadership, and greater willpower.

We know what is at stake. We know that when one group dominates, we all suffer.

We know how a divisive, non-diverse media that has lost sight of its public service remit, can lead to crises of institutional governance and trust, as recent controversies in the US, UK, and other democracies have shown.

We know of the importance of the links between representative media, trust, and the wellbeing of our populations.

As well as the risks, we also know the rewards of a public service media that reflects the interests of all of the public it serves.

When we give everyone a voice, we give everyone a chance to fulfill their true human potential.

Based on a submission to the Future of Media Commission by the Equality Expert Group (EEG), a collective of experts drawn from a variety of fields, public and private, seeking to support equality and diversity in Irish social, economic and cultural life. Current founding members of the EEG include Carol Hunt, Áine Kerr, Dearbhail McDonald, Jillian van Turnhout, Noelle O’Connell and Margaret E. Ward. #EqualityExpertMedia

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