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The invisible woman in film, TV industries

A scene from The Hurt Locker, for which filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Oscar, the Directors Guild of America Award and the BAFTA Award for best direction.
By Beryl Richards
The Mark News
A report shows a downward trend in the employment of female directors in drama, comedy

Since 2012, I’ve been looking at why there seem to be fewer and fewer women directing TV drama and film in the United Kingdom. I’ve been a freelance TV drama and comedy director for many years, and I’m currently vice chair of Directors UK, the main professional body for the 5,000 film and TV directors working in the United Kingdom.

I started out thinking that there seemed to be fewer women directing in the industry, and that in order to change things we just needed to make producers a bit more aware of this. I now believe the only way anything will change is if we set targets and monitor, measure, and deliver results within a specified timeframe.

We began by examining and analyzing programme credits to see if male and female directors were experiencing the same employment opportunities. In our sample we analyzed more than 28,000 episodes of 142 long-running and popular shows across many areas of TV over 10 years.

The detailed data we have sourced shows patterns of behaviour that indicate systemic discrimination. Our report, Women Directors — Who’s Calling the Shots?, has prompted much debate as to why female directors are so underrepresented, and how we can redress the balance.

Our report shows, among other things, a downward trend in the employment of female directors in much of drama, comedy, and entertainment:

-“Only 11 percent of all drama series and serial episodes were directed by women in 2011 and 2012; down from 15 percent in the total sample.”

-“Only 9 percent directed detective or crime serials in 2011 and 12.”

-“0 percent of sci-fi/fantasy genre drama episodes were directed by women in 2011 and 2012; down from 4 percent of the total sample.”

In fact, many popular drama, entertainment, and comedy shows have never been directed by a woman. A recent report published by the British Film Institute shows similar patterns for the film industry.

What concerns us is the lack of a female perspective in film and TV. Women make up 51 percent of the population, yet film and TV drama is largely excluding our view of the world.

A key aspect of our research findings was the invisibility of women to those who commission work and hire directors. Before we published our report, we had private meetings with executives at broadcast and production companies to see what they thought of our results. All were shocked by our findings — they had no idea the numbers were so low. They hadn’t noticed.

Many pointed out that there are a lot of women in executive producer and management roles, but it was clear that they knew of very few female directors. There were a trusted five or six female directors in drama or comedy that they often sought, but if they were not available, the job went to a man (or, as many executives said, “the best person for the job”).

Many of the people we met with suggested mentoring or training courses as a remedy. There is little evidence that this approach has had any meaningful effect, and it certainly seems inadequate when discussing such a huge disparity. Training and mentoring might help to get more women into the workforce, but our biggest concern is the employment of the talented women who are already there.

There was also an assumption that there are few female directors because directing is incompatible with child care. The female directors around the table, including some of the “trusted few,” corrected them on this. Most of them had children. They had managed this transition, and worked in all areas of film and TV. Women make up 27 percent of Directors UK’s membership, and 35-44 is the age band with the most female directors. There are plenty of us out there.

In TV, a significant shift of power has resulted in risk-averse behaviour. Hiring decisions regarding directors that were once made at the producer level are now subject to commissioner approval. Our data shows that the same known-name directors are being used again and again, and almost all of them are men. Very few female directors are known at the commissioning level.

The system is clearly weighted in favour of male directors, so it seems the system is what we need to address. The easiest way to halt further decline is to monitor the situation and set targets so the issue gains visibility.

There also needs to be a stronger public profile for the excellent work that female directors are doing. Recent coverage of the Cannes Film Festival has called into question the selection procedures, as so few films selected in competition are made by women. Is this more evidence of systemic discrimination?

In 1996, the UK publishing business was in a similar situation. There were plenty of female novelists, but they were not often reviewed by critics, and they were not appearing on literary award shortlists. They had the same problem of invisibility.

Some female publishers got together to create the Orange Prize for Fiction (now called Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction), which is an award specifically for female novelists. Although controversial, this prize is now one of the United Kingdom’s most prestigious literary awards. And 18 years on, it has achieved its objectives: there are roughly equal numbers of male and female novelists on the shortlists, in the reviews, and reflected in book sales.

Back at Directors UK, we are considering whether a similar initiative would be useful for female directors. A prize within the Cannes Film Festival to honour the work of female directors would certainly cause controversy, but its introduction would draw attention to that work, and allow a wider audience — not just a panel of largely male selectors — to see our vision of the world. And that is long overdue.

@berylrdirector
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