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Past it at 35? You must be a woman!

Actors' unions to campaign against 'malign sexism and ageism' in the entertainment industry

Radical ideas aimed at improving the career chances of women in British television will be published tomorrow in an attempt to shatter the "malign sexism and ageism" in the entertainment industry.

The problem is so bad that women aged 35 are struggling to land roles, said the actors' union Equity. The union is calling for compulsory audits to ensure that TV, film and theatre companies that receive public funds provide enough roles for older women.

The International Federation of Actors, of which Equity is a member, will launch tomorrow an equal opportunities handbook. Its controversial recommendations include government targets ensuring that 40 per cent of key film positions are held by women; greater monitoring by TV networks to ensure their programmes have a gender and age balance; and women taking on men's roles.

The proposals come after several high-profile cases in which female broadcasters and actresses have accused television companies of ageism. The former Countryfile presenter Miriam O'Reilly, 53, is taking legal action against the BBC, claiming she was dumped from the programme because of her age and sex. Selina Scott also accused the corporation of "malign sexism and ageism" in July, and the actress Juliet Stevenson said that women over 40 hit a "plateau". The departures of the newsreader Moira Stuart, 61, and Strictly Come Dancing judge Arlene Phillips, 66, were also surrounded by accusations of ageism.

Equity has warned that the British entertainment industry is falling behind its European counterparts. Its vice-president, Jean Rogers, said: "Equity is disappointed and saddened with the way we are lagging behind other countries – Norway, Sweden, Spain – in terms of employers doing anything about the problem. There is very little in the UK that shows good practice when it comes to employers."

The union has accused broadcasters of breaching equality laws. Research conducted by Channel 4 earlier this year found that men outnumber women on British television by two to one, and younger women are over-represented. Four in every 10 women on screen are aged over 40, while six out of 10 men on TV are 40 or older.

"We don't exclude ethnic minorities – why exclude older women?" said the presenter Esther Rantzen. "I don't think the answer is regulation, because you're dealing with a creative industry and I think it would be bitterly resented. That being said, there is no doubt that older women are almost unrepresented on TV."