JEN­NIFER O’CONNELL

‘ You need to go blond. And smile more – you’re a bit se­ri­ous’

The Irish Times Magazine - - NEWS -

Con­ver­sa­tion 1: “Are you sure you have a voice for ra­dio?” “Why, what’s wrong with my voice?” “Noth­ing at all. It’s just harder for women to sound au­thor­i­ta­tive. But you have a deep voice, so you might be okay.” Con­ver­sa­tion 2: “The pro­ducer said he likes you, but you’re a bit young yet.” “I’m 30.” “Yeah, that’s what he said. You need to ma­ture a bit if you want to move into se­ri­ous stuff.” Con­ver­sa­tion 3: “We’d love to of­fer you a trial in the pre­sent­ing role.” “Great!” “But we’ll need you to make a few changes.” “What kind of changes?” “You need to go blond. And smile more. You’re a bit se­ri­ous.”

“The hair I can con­sider. But I’m not sure I can change my per­son­al­ity…”

“You don’t have to. But this is TV. View­ers like women who are smi­ley.”

I heard it a lot early in my ca­reer – the no­tion that women were some­how, by virtue of our gen­der, hand­i­capped when it came to broad­cast­ing. Lis­ten­ers, male and fe­male, didn’t like women’s voices. View­ers got dis­tracted by our hair or our clothes and for­got to lis­ten. We had in­suf­fi­cient author­ity. We were too young to be taken se­ri­ously. Or maybe we were too se­ri­ous, the kind of se­ri­ous that might put morn­ing TV view­ers off their corn­flakes. Then, in the blink of an eye, we were too old to be ap­peal­ing.

I cal­cu­lated early on that the win­dow of op­por­tu­nity in which all the stars align – and a woman is the right age, pos­sesses the right amount of author­ity, has the right tim­bre to her voice, the right hair, and is the right age not to be re­garded as high risk for dis­ap­pear­ing off to make ba­bies – wasn’t so much a win­dow as a hair­line frac­ture.

My male col­leagues in broad­cast­ing, I no­ticed when I worked at RTÉ a decade ago, could turn up to work un­smil­ing and di­shev­elled with un­ruly be­head and reedy voices, and no one would dream of wor­ry­ing about it.

The first time I had heard the “lis­ten­ers don’t like women’s voices” shtick, I was still in col­lege, and con­sid­er­ing spe­cial­is­ing in ra­dio. Okay, one of my lec­tur­ers had said, doubt­fully. But you’d prob­a­bly go fur­ther in print. Then he men­tioned the voice thing. He meant well. He was only con­vey- ing the ac­cepted wis­dom – wis­dom that was based on re­search that, well, never ac­tu­ally ex­isted. It was an ur­ban myth.

Later, when it turned out that be­ing a woman also made a ca­reer in tele­vi­sion in­fin­itely more com­pli­cated, I turned down the trial pre­sent­ing gig ( which was not at RTÉ) and stuck to print where, at least, no one seemed to care when or how I smiled.

All of these con­ver­sa­tions came back to me when I saw the an­nounce­ment re­cently of RTÉ’s new evening news line up. Two women will present Six One: Keelin Shan­ley and Caitri­ona Perry. Two women will present the 9 o’clock news: Eileen Dunne and Sharon Ní Bhe­oláin.

I would be sur­prised if they hadn’t all heard sim­i­lar things as I did start­ing out. That they lacked author­ity. That they should smile more. Or smile less. Or do some­thing with their hair. Ní Bhe­oláin re­cently had to suf­fer the in­dig­nity of the en­tire coun­try learn­ing that she was earn­ing ¤ 60,000 to ¤ 80,000 less than her Six One co- pre­sen­ter, Bryan Dob­son. But they stuck it out.

The news that the two main evening news pro­grammes on RTÉ will be pre­sented by all- fe­male teams doesn’t close the gen­der pay gap. It doesn’t do any­thing for the gen­der vis­i­bil­ity gap at other broad­cast­ers, in­clud­ing New­stalk where, 20 years on, the lis­ten­ers- don’t- like- women shtick still seems to in­flu­ence sched­ul­ing de­ci­sions.

But it’s still a big deal, a slow but steady dis­man­tling of the no­tion that a woman’s big­gest ob­sta­cle in broad­cast­ing is her gen­der – a blind­ingly lu­di­crous no­tion that some­how, with rep­e­ti­tion, be­came a self- ful­fill­ing prophecy.

These days, things are look­ing up. The fact that Bren­dan O’Con­nor’s The Cut­ting Edge on RTÉ in­vari­ably has a 50- 50 gen­der split on the panel ( dis­clo­sure: I have been a pan­el­list) mer­its only the odd cur­mud­geonly grum­ble on so­cial me­dia. “Good # Cut­tingEdge show this week but but I’m get­ting a lit­tle tired of the 2- 1 fe­male- male guest bal­ance,” tweeted one chap re­cently.

There were a few more com­plaints about women “tak­ing over” the evening news, about the “PC brigade gone made” and the “fem­i­naz­i­na­tion” we’re en­ter­ing into. “Time to turn off ... they won’t be pre­sent­ing the ‘ news’ they’ll be pre­sent­ing them­selves # 100%,” de­clared one poor dis­grun­tled fel­low.

But most of the re­ac­tion was pos­i­tive. Hav­ing a vagina and be­ing able to de­liver hard news in an au­thor­i­ta­tive man­ner are no longer re­garded as mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive.

As the next gen­er­a­tion of young fe­male jour­nal­ists emerges into the world of work they, with luck, won’t even stop to con­sider that be­ing a woman might be the thing that gets in their way. They’ll be too busy wor­ry­ing about the ro­bots.

jo­con­nell@ irish­times. com

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