I was really pleased to attend the inaugural ‘Women On Air’ conference this week in the magnificent surroundings of Dublin Castle. Walking across the upper yard of one of Dublin’s most iconic locations on a sunny morning was just stunning. As I carefully picked my way on the cobblestones I was vaguely aware of the centuries of history that was all around me; ghosts of the British administration and laterally the whisperings that signified subterfuge and intrigue as Ireland pushed for independence.
There was no subterfuge however at the ‘Women on Air’ event which was officially opened by Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte, who didn’t annoy me at all with his speech. He was followed by Margaret E Ward who outlined how ‘Women on Air’ came into being after a ‘debate’ on Twitter. I was a silent witness to that debate back in 2010 and felt a frisson of excitement when Margaret along with former radio producer Helen McCormack decided to organise a seminar which was aimed at providing tips and support for women who wished to go on air.
Back in 2010 I was a .... here we go again... housewife (I HATE THAT TERM – but all others are equally grating) buried deep in suburban Cabinteely. However my children were 23, 11 and 9 and I was itching to get involved back in the world of work and had decided to attempt to pursue my passion of writing and talking! I had done a few radio interviews before in my previous career as PRO for a national charity and it was a medium I found very comfortable. I also passionately wanted to hear more women’s voices and more importantly women’s stories on air.
So taking my courage in both hands I sent a very timid tweet to Margaret E Ward asking if it might be possible to attend this planned seminar. It was.
The seminar took place on Tuesday 12th of October and was held in the National Library at 6:30pm. I got there way too early and heading to the coffee shop for a coffee while I waited. As I sat on my own in the empty cafe the voice in my head grew louder and louder saying “what the hell are you doing?”, “go home, you eejit, why on earth would you consider yourself part of this?”
As I walked towards the lecture theatre, I tried to counter the feeling of seasickness and terror. There were lots of women milling about and they all seemed to know each other. The voice in my head was now in a right panic. “No-one knows you – turn around and leave before you make a show of yourself”. I tried to keep my face looking calm and confident as I negotiated a place to sit when I suddenly saw one face that was familiar. I had met writer Eleanor Fitzsimons just a week or so earlier at a book launch and we had chatted. Thankfully she remembered me and I clung on to her like she was a life-raft in treacherous seas.
Later that evening I met Helen McCormack, who asked me if I would be willing to come into studio on a news review panel on the Tom McGuirk programme, which she produced on 4FM.
So on that night four years ago, I arrived into the city a bag of nerves, wondering what the hell I was doing. But thanks to the support, encouragement and faith of just three women I went home wondering if it might actually be possible to pursue a new career in the media... or what Fiona Looney (bless her) calls my midlife crisis media career.
Women on Air has come a long way since October 2010 and I guess I have made some progress on the journey too. Change is definitely in the air. RTE Radio One seems to be leading the charge at the moment with rising numbers of women presenting programmes during the peak hours of 8am to 8pm.
TV3 also have managed to attain a relatively good gender balance in their news and current affairs output – most noticeably on Vincent Browne’s programme. Something I think they don’t get enough credit for.
During the first session of the Conference TV3’s Political Editor, Ursula Halligan, made the point about women on TV being constantly made feel that they have to fit a specific body type... young, pretty and very slim. An image, she said, that was largely constructed by men but which was bought into by women. Aine Lawlor referenced the excellent documentary by Kirsty Wark, ‘Blurred Lines’ and the amount of violent sexual threats that can be made against some women in media, something that another panellist, journalist Una Mulally knows all about.
It struck me that both issues have a connection to each other. Because TV companies seem to be so reluctant to put older women or women who don’t fit the specific ‘TV type’ on air, broadcasters are actually feeding this view that all women must be attractive and specifically sexually attractive regardless of their qualifications or ability. The most obvious example of this is that of Mary Beard, the respected academic in the UK, who received horrendous online abuse regarding appearance after a series she made, was aired on the BBC.
Perhaps when we have more balance in the physicality of the women we see on our screens – across body types, age etc we will see a decrease in the amount of abuse someone like Mary Beard receives. It is much easier to bully the minority.
In broader terms we need to ensure as more and more women make it to air that we don’t follow the men and have airwaves that are almost entirely populated by middle class voices.
Just as the women at that very first ‘Women On Air’ seminar were accepting of the interloper housewife from the suburbs, as more and more of us make it to air we must ensure that we are bringing diversity with us.
Congratulations to Caroline Erskine – chairperson of Women On Air, Margaret E Ward and Helen McCormack the originators of the movement and all the current committee for a wonderful conference. Onwards and upwards sisters.