The world of finance isn’t the only place where women are treated dismissively in the work place. Television executive Helen O’ Rahilly tells of her own experiences.
The outrage over the Price Waterhouse Coopers’ email yesterday set me thinking. Now it didn’t surprise me one bit that a bunch of idiotic blokes compounded their priapic prurience by cascading their sexual stupidity (complete with grossly insulting slang for their female colleagues) for all to see. Nor was it the assumption that this 17 strong sleazy band of brothers thought this “top ten totty” email was acceptable behaviour in the workplace. What got me going was that newspapers reprinted the photographs of the 13 women thereby inviting their own readers to partake in their own version of “Shag? Marry? Avoid?”. Then I took a deep breath. The media to blame? Why was I even surprised?
I’ve worked in broadcasting for 25 years in both public and private companies in Britain and Ireland. The media is supposed to be a liberal bastion of decency, equality, blah blah, blah. You regularly hear hair-raising stories of bullying, intimidation and sexual harassment in the financial services, the legal profession, in the traditional male dominated domains of the armed services or the police. The media, you’d think, would be perhaps pretty free of the excesses of all that raging testosterone, bar the high pressure cauldrons of the newsroom with its heart-attack inducing deadlines. Now I regard myself as a pretty tough, resilient character: I’ve had a gun pulled on me by a Mafia wife; been in a car chase with mobsters around the backroads of dusty Las Vegas; had a Rottweiler set on me and a chain aimed at my face while “door-stepping” some criminals for a investigative programme. Oh and, by the way, I was also Anne Robinson’s boss for three years, so you get the picture: I’m no pushover. But I’ve been on the receiving end of unbelievable harassment in those “liberal” media workplaces.
Imagine having your locked office raided at night and your desk drawers rifled through in search of your personal photographs so they can be shown to a group of other executives drinking in the next door room. Imagine overhearing “ah sure she must be a fucking lesbian” because you choose not to join in every night with the loutish, cruel and drunken dissing of your staff. Let me be clear: it wasn’t solely a male thing: some women executives eat their own too. There’s nothing worse than the collusion of other females in your character assassination. As I chaired a weekly meeting, a male and a female executive would sit on either side of me, blatantly texting each other under the table and laughing at the hilarity of their insights. That was routine. The break-in, where an unwitting security guard was asked to open my office door at midnight because this fellow senior manager needed a document urgently, was a cover story for what was, in my opinion, a burglary.
The strangest dimension to this event is that the perpetrator told me to my face what he had done, it was done as a joke don’t you know? When, with a cold and rising anger, I reported this to the man in charge I was told not to make a fuss; I had to “grow a pair”. Other women senior managers knew this harassment was going on but, bar one, I got the silent treatment: sisterhood was not powerful in this place. One man, married with two teenagers, told me to “fuck off back to where I came from” because I offered him a bonus if he’d make an extra programme. I asked him if he spoke like that to his wife and kids. Now I want to state that the best boss I ever had is a man, a tough hack from Liverpool, a football-loving, pint-swilling, un-PC bloke, a hard taskmaster and a brilliant journalist: we are firm friends to this day. Conversely, the worst boss I had was a woman: devious, shrill, unpredictable, lacking charm, humour and common sense. She once asked me whether Ireland had automatic cash dispensers. I told her no, we simply exchanged sacks of spuds over the bank counter. That shut her up.
So, I am even-handed when it comes to gender, I don’t expect favours because I’m a woman, all I ask is for is to be treated decently, to have my views listened to, to think you’re making an honest and productive contribution. That’s the way I’ve always treated staff who have worked for me whether in teams of 80 or 800. I’ve been lucky to lead marvellous teams of creative producers and executives, editors and researchers, journalists and technical staff, male and female. I’ve promoted both men and women whose talent I spotted and nurtured: one has won an Emmy for “The Office”, another an Emmy and a British Academy Award for WIfe Swap. What keeps me going is knowing I’ve survived the slings and arrows of the lesser talented ones in this business who have tried and tested me, actively tired to disrupt my plans, have tried to intimidate me, slandered me and libelled me. But, to every woman who has to put up with any sort of passive or aggressive nonsense, and especially to those 13 women of PWC, here’s a few lines of a song that keeps me going
“I’ve stood on breadlines
With the best
Watched while the headlines
Did the rest.
In the Depression was I depressed?
I’m still here.
First you’re another
Then someone’s mother,
Then you’re camp.
Then you career from career
I’m almost through my memoirs.
And I’m here.”
(“I’m Still Here” from Stephen Sondheim’s Follies)
Helen O’Rahilly is a Television Executive in London. Born in Dublin, she’s worked for the BBC, RTE and various independent TV companies. A former deputy controller on BBC One, the first female Director of Television at RTE and a Creative Director of Digital Channels, BBC, Helen’s broadcasting background is in factual and news programmes. She recently returned to Dublin to lecture to the first “Women on Air” gathering at the National Library, giving women an insider’s view of the TV industry and how to get the better of it.