Back in March, I was part of a collective of 76 women TV writers who wrote an open letter to the television commissioners and producers asking why so few women were being commissioned to write original drama in the UK. Under the hashtag #WorkWithUs, the letter gained some attention. And, in the weeks that followed, I was contacted by a few of those to whom the letter had been addressed.
Disappointingly, none of them got in touch to say that they had heard us and would endeavour to do better. Instead, they passed the buck and blamed the paucity of drama and comedy written by women on agents, independent production companies and the writers themselves. All of those who contacted me claimed that the letter had exaggerated the problem or created a problem that didn’t exist. They also all claimed that under their regimes things had got better for female writers.
Plot twist: by that point I already knew that they were talking out of their hats.
That was because I had been party to an independent study into gender equality for screenwriters in the UK. Commissioned by the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, the research utilises over 30 data sources to analyse over a whole decade of film and television in the UK. The full report is exhaustive and breaks down the statistics by genre, budget, TV time slot, programme type and broadcaster. This far-ranging study and our subsequent ‘Equality Writes’ campaign is our trade union’s response to years of assurances that things were getting better for women writers. We had a strong feeling that this wasn’t the case and so we decided to find out for sure. We were shocked by what we discovered.
The headline statistics are staggering. Only 16% of working screenwriters in the UK film industry are female; despite films written by women doing better financially and critically than those written by their male colleagues. The small screen is no friend to gender equality either. Only 28% of TV has been written predominantly by women in the last decade. Again, this is despite huge ratings successes for female-led shows such as Call The Midwife, Victoria and Happy Valley.
Far from getting better, the number of women getting commissioned to tell their stories has flatlined. So, to all those who wrote to me expecting praise for their services to equality, we won’t be handing out the medals just yet.
However, as our hashtag suggests, we would like to work with them to improve things. A good start would be effective and transparent equality monitoring. I don’t doubt that those who contacted me genuinely believed that they had been even-handed in their commissioning and project development. However, we know that when women pitch projects to broadcasters they often hear something along the lines of ‘we’ve already got something with women in it’, almost as if women’s stories are a niche genre with limited appeal. Considering women watch more hours of TV than men in this country that simply cannot and should not be the case.
Effective equality monitoring would also reveal the truth about how many of our BAME and LGBT+ members are being heard. It would show whether our colleagues with disabilities are being commissioned. And perhaps it would also help to address the lack of representation for working class writers in the industry.
We are also calling for public film funders to pledge a 50/50 split between male and female-written films by 2020. Part of the problem in film is that female screenwriters can currently expect smaller budgets and to write less films across their careers than their male counterparts. This is unsustainable and needs to change urgently.
Those two simple recommendations are just the start but would go a long way to showing us that those with the power to effect genuine change in our industry are prepared to #WorkWithUs and that, this time, things are really getting better.
For more information on Equality Writes, click here
Lisa Holdsworth is a TV writer and deputy chair of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain