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19/05/2014

Conference speech by Caroline Erskine, Chairperson Women on Air

Caroline Erskine

This morning we are asking two main questions: “Do we Need a representative media?” and “Who is shaping our view of the world?”  Two very interlinked questions. We hope to arrive at some answers… with the help of leading journalists and broadcasters and from leaders in other sectors, people who are doing very practical things to address gender imbalance.

We are honoured that so many key decision-makers in the media are attending here today.  We look forward to hearing from you and indeed any one who wishes to contribute during the Question and Answer sessions that will follow each panel discussion and which will follow the keynote address by Katie Orenstein founder and CEO of the OpEd project in New York.

We are delighted too that so many people with expertise across so many other areas are here too – including some experts whose voices may not be known to us on radio and television and in the opinion pages.  Yet.

And that ‘s the nub of it. The focus of our discussions today. The  fact  that the voices of expert women continue to be the most absent voices in the media. This is what the research shows. A study conducted in 2013 by Women On Air’s Research Director Jane Suiter of DCU and  Anne O’Brien of NUIM, showed that, just 22%  of expert voices on air during that study period were those of  women experts.

The main focus of Women On Air’s work now – and the business of this conference – is to propose ways to address that imbalance.  Turn on the television or radio and there are superb women broadcasters steering high profile current affairs programmes…programmes often put together by women editors, producers and researchers. And their numbers are increasing on many stations. Problem is that the experts who are interviewed on these programme are disproportionately male.

So why is that not a good thing?

Quite simple really.  Radio and television continue to be the media through which most information is accessed. Despite the growth and significance of social media, it is on radio and television that most decision-makers and experts air their views.  This is where opinions are formed and consolidated; it where election campaigns are fought; this is where proposals for social, political and economic change are most interrogated. This is, if you like, where the first draft of public policy is aired. And – without diminishing the relevance of Twitter and other social media – television and radio remain the established court of mass popular opinion.

Women are not a minority.  They are as mainstream as you get. They make up half the planet and need to be part of these opinion-forming conversations. They bring expertise, priorities and perspectives to bear that inform and often enhance current debate.  It makes sense to include them.

The other reason is of course, the value to our sons of daughter of seeing authoritative and influential women role models on these expert panels.  After all, you can’t be what you can’t see.

In Women On Air we have detected a palpable mood among women to engage, to participate. We’ve seen it not just through the growing interest in and attendance at our own networking events but through the number of professional and other women’s groups that have quietly been springing up around the country.

So why isn’t this reflected on our airwaves?

hy when there are women experts out there who are first-class scientists, economists , academics, business leaders … are these women hesitant and reluctant to bring that expertise to the airwaves?

Why, when their male counterparts are not shy about putting themselves forward, do women think of reasons not to do so, often asking themselves “Why Me?”

These are questions that will be teased out this morning.

For our part, what Women On Air does is seek ways to give women the skills and confidence to go on air.  We do so by holding monthly networking events where women can get insights from top broadcasters themselves and also from women experts who are already compelling contributors to radio and television programmes, who are brilliant at communicating their expertise as medics or engineers or economists or ..the list goes on.  We are also involved in organising media training days – in partnership with broadcasting stations - which demystify the process of going on air and give handy tips about how best to get your message across.  We are particularly indebted to RTE and to Dublin City FM for their proactive engagement with us on this.

We have also built up a list of hundreds women who are experts across a variety of fields who have said they are willing and available to go on air. Our next project is to upgrade and update that List to make sure it’s as user friendly as possible. A  Go To contacts book for programme makers.

It all takes time and resources. Women On Air is an initiative run by a committee of just eight women – all of them volunteers. That’s why we are grateful to the BAI for having supported us ……..first with research funding and now with this conference. We hope to work with the BAI and indeed all the other stakeholders in the media and policy-making sectors here today to continue this work, in a sustainable way.  Of course, the ultimate aim is to become redundant, as quickly as possible. Mission accomplished.

We hope that Today will be a step in that direction! This event would not have happened without our other generous sponsors:

And we wouldn’t be here in this beautiful venue without the very generous gesture of the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Pat Rabbitte, in making it available to us. Thank you Minister.

It also sends out an important message about our mission that, as Minister in charge of policy relating to media, you have made the time to be here. To open this our inaugural  conference. May I invite you now to do so.


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