Women directors in British TV: Underrepresented and losing ground

Whilst Cannes’ head judge Jane Campion accuses the festival of keeping women’s films out of view, a report published by Directors UK reveals that British television also has a growing problem with women.

The report, which collates information on over 28,200 episodes created by the country’s leading production companies, concludes that there are worryingly low numbers of women directors in British television. More concerning perhaps is the fact that the problem is getting worse: the percentage of female directors actually dropped over the course of the years examined (2011 and 2012).

One of the main reasons behind the issue appears to be a relative invisibility of available female directors compared to their male counterparts. The BAFTA-winning director Beryl Richards, vice chair of Directors UK, explained how this dynamic works in an interview on BBC Front Row: “There are a few women who are really experienced and known and they work a lot. If they [production companies] can’t get those women, it’ll go to a man. Because they don’t know any women beyond those four or five.”

Many of the most popular series on British television, which could act as essential stepping stones in a director’s career, have never been directed by a woman. Examples of these productions are QI, Vera, The IT Crowd, Benidorm, The Inbetweeners and Inspector George Gently, but the list includes many more. A further large group of well-known shows have been directed by women in less than 30 per cent of their entire run. These include most soap operas and medical dramas such as Holby City and Coronation Street, for which women directed just 15 per cent of episodes. This statistic indicates a bottle-neck problem, as shows like these are often a breeding ground for new talent.

“We’re looking at the next generation, and that’s the sort of place they’re coming through. You’re narrowing it very early on, they can’t even get through the door to start with”, Richards says.

The documentary sector shows a more promising balance of male and female directors. However, many areas of this type of programming display an alarming level of gender stereotyping. The highest percentages of women directors are seen on factual programmes concerned with domestic issues, body image and food. In addition, the assumption that women will find directing hard to combine with childcare also harms their chances of being hired, as well as a perception that women may not be able to manage mainly male crews and casts.

The most important recommendation of the report involves raising awareness of the issue and monitoring the demographics of all workers in the sector. The majority of broadcasters and production companies involved in the investigation had no idea of the scale of the problem, and reacted with shock at the report’s figures. Commissioners are usually unaware of the make-up of their freelance production teams and don’t keep track of these statistics, despite implementing equal opportunity strategies within their own organisations.

The report suggest a concrete target for all major broadcasters; encouraging them to ensure that a minimum of 30 per cent of their work is assigned to women directors by 2017. According to Richards, “because these decisions are being made so high up, to be honest, there’s about six people who need to change their minds on this, and it could effect the most enormous amount of change.” It's good news, then, that all of the companies reviewed for the report have expressed a desire to create more job opportunities for women in response to the new findings.

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