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Women on Air was a happy accident - Conference speech by founder Margaret E. Ward

It all started with an article in April 2010 written by then Sunday Tribune journalist Una Mullally. It was called Radio Gaga and in it she asked “Where are all the women were in Irish radio?”

Una had interviewed media execitives, producers and presenters about why women were so marginalised in Irish radio both as presenters and as contributors…

Was it an agenda driven by listeners or programming directors? Do we not want to hear female voices, and where does that perception come from? Are women themselves at fault for not making as much progression in radio as their male counterparts?

It was an excellent and thought-provoking article but I found some of her statistics hard to believe and challenged her on Twitter. A debate ensued between Una, a radio producer named Helen McCormack, a TV producer at the BBC others working in the media.

Una encouraged us to actively listen to the radio and that was when the real shock set in. It was possible to listen to the radio for hours without hearing a female voice. When a woman did appear as a contributor she was often discussing girly or traditionally feminine topics. It was rare to hear a woman speaking as an expert on current affairs or news programmes. Women were not in a serious or authoritative role as contributors and there were actually very few female presenters between 9am and 5pm. On some stations they did not appear at all as presenters between the primetime hours of 8am and 8pm.

Eventually, this heated discussion led to me organising what I thought would be a one-off seminar at the National Library. There was such overwhelming interest that three years later we have an extensive membership of like-minded women and men, we’ve conducted 12 seminar and networking events and we’ve built a FREE media database with one thousand listings of female area experts that can be used by the media. We do not have any funding so this has all been organised by eight to ten very dedicated volunteers.

But, back in 2010, our very first mission was to understand and start busting the myths that seemed to standing in the way of women getting on the airwaves…

Our aims:

You might wonder why we’ve been so single-minded and why so many people have joined us in our determination to change the gender imbalance on the airwaves.

[The missing pieces]

Let’s listen to what happens when women’s voices are missing from the media and spheres of influence. In the past three years we’ve heard:

Imagine how ridiculous and unthinkable it would be to have an all-female panel debating prostate cancer or erectile dysfunction or funding cuts to programmes for male victims of violence. Programme-makers would never even consider such a panel yet women’s voices are routinely left out of conversations that impact directly on their lives...economics, politics and policy making. It is “normal” that men alone are left to debate and decide on the way women should think and live their lives.

[What’s in a name?]

In the print media male contributors are also more prevalent. When women are quoted, or written about, they are often described by their relationship to a man or to children even when it has nothing to do with the story.

Would a male CEO be called “John Fitzpatrick, father of two”, in a business story?  Would a man who died of an overdose be called boyfriend of a celebrity if he was a well-known fashion designer in his own right?

Would the headline “Grandmother, 71, overcomes thieves during robbery” have been written that way if an older man had stopped the thieves?

Is this is a mass conspiracy again women? No, I don’t think it is. However, I do think we’ve been culturally conditioned to ignore or belittle women’s voices. As members of the media, we need to be more conscious of our bias. We need to be more aware when we are choosing our contributors and the words that we use to describe women’s place in the world. Why? Because our choices impact directly on women and on the quality of their lives.

[It is possible to get gender balance on panels.]

As an organisation, we don’t believe in media quotas for presenters but we do think that measurable targets for contributors are a good idea. The myth that it’s impossible to get gender balance on media panels was busted by the Tonight with Vincent Browne Show on TV3 which set itself gender targets three years ago.  More recently, RTE’s Claire Byrne and Audrey Carville have quietly but consistently managed to obtain gender-balanced panels despite the heavy political content of their programmes.  

[Women on Air is a celebration.]

Anyway, the most important thing about Women on Air is not that we’ve grown exponentially or that we’ve rattled a few cages or that our message might be getting through. The most important thing is that it’s a celebration. Women on Air is a celebration of women’s voices and expertise. It’s a community of women and men who encourage, support and actively promote women. It’s a safe place for women to try out their public voice and to learn that their expertise is not only wanted by programme-makers but that it’s needed too.

Women on Air brings women’s voices and opinions out in the open where they belong. This should become our new normal.

Thank you.

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