When I started working for the BBC in Scotland, more than 30 years ago, I was one of only four women producers – and the only one with a young child. When we had any kind of family emergency my husband – also a TV producer – took time off work to take care of them.
We had learned that when he did so he was hailed as a hero, a wonderful father. When I did, people questioned my commitment to my job.
Flash forward thirty years and much has changed. Women producers abound. In fact, top UK TV writer Andrew Davies has remarked, only half-jokingly, that BBC drama is run by women – “and at any one time half of them are off on maternity leave!” Women, it seems, are seen are nurturers – and that’s a valuable skill for a producer.
All is not well, however, in the television gender stakes. In the UK, the US and mainland Europe, women are not faring well in many of the most creative areas.
Directors UK has published research demonstrating that the number of British TV shows directed by women has barely increased since 1973. Back then the figure was that 8% of our TV shows were directed by women. Forty years later the figure was…8%!
In some areas, the figures are worse. In 2011-2012 the percentage of entertainment and comedy shows directed by women was 2%. Think about it: 98% of those shows were directed by men. What effect does that have on the nature of those shows, on the way we see the world?
Things are little better in the USA. Last year, the Directors Guild of America released figures showing that, in 2014-22015, only 16% of TV episodes were directed by women, and that represented a significant increase on the year before. And more than two dozen popular shows – such as Boardwalk Empire, Black Sails, The Comeback, The Exes, Marco Polo and Banshee – had not employed any female directors. Mom had no women directors, Mystery Girls, found women too mysterious to employ. Master of Sex could only be directed by one sex. And the ironically named Man Seeking Woman had obviously failed in its quest: they hadn’t found a single woman director.
Perhaps there simply aren’t any good women directors?
But wait: Indie Wire recently published a list of “The top 25 directors working in TV today.” These things may be subjective – and it’s a pretty white list – but 10 of the 25 were women. Award-winning, commercially successful women. Directing shows like The X Files, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, The Killing, Wonder Woman, West Wing, ER, House – you get the picture. Considering how few episodes are directed by women, those 10 directors have to be pretty outstanding.
But still, those numbers come out, whether in film or television, in UK, USA or mainland Europe, women consistently direct fewer than one in five TV shows.
So what’s to be done? Conducting high quality research and putting the numbers out there is a start. In the UK, the BBC was so shocked to discover how few women directors they were employing that they started their own internal campaign to increase the numbers. And in the US the DGA pursued a ‘name and shame’ policy, publishing lists of the Best and Worst employers. Suddenly, shows such as Boardwalk Empire and Master of Sex, discovered they could work with women directors after all – with no apparent disastrous drop in their popularity.
It’s not just women, of course. In the UK only 1.5% of TV shows are directed by Black and Minority Ethnic people – male or female. And even in the much more ethnically diverse USA the figure sits around 16-18%. That too needs attention.
But women are not a minority. We’re a majority of the population and a considerable majority of the audience. And we can change things. Research published in the USA last year demonstrated how: put women in charge. Women comprised 32% of writers on TV shows run by women – and only 8% of writers on shows run by men. On shows created by women, 49% of the writers were women – on those created by men, the figure was 15%. This knocks on to the portrayal of women on screen, attitudes towards women and, of course, the importance given to their opinions.
Every year Women in Film and Television (WFTV) in the UK hosts a glitzy Awards ceremony at the Park Lane Hilton. We honour outstanding women across our industry. Not just actors, directors and writers, but cinematographers, designers, entrepreneurs, casting directors, even, this year, a lighting gaffer. We celebrate their talent and achievement, of course, but we have a message far beyond that: the industry is full of great women who do fantastic things. Unleash that potential and our television will only get better.