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