The exodus of women from the UK television industry

In the past three years 5,000 women have left the industry compared to 750 men. The quality of our television affects the very nature of our democracy, society and culture. It really matters who our media workers are: the workforce must be as pluralist as our politics needs to be.
Marion Bowman
30 March 2010

Thirty years ago, the UK television industry was facing a revolution. Two broadcasters who had the airwaves sewn up – the BBC and its commercial rival ITV - were about to be challenged by a new player, Channel 4. Advertisers wanted more airtime to reach consumers and they got it. But something else happened too. Women active through the 1970s, the decade of the ‘second wave’ of feminism, saw the chance for a significant intervention that could change the employment and representation of women in television for the better. We were damned if we were going to let a new channel start up that would be like all the other sexist old boys’ networks. We wanted a permanent change to public discourse and public life. We forced Channel 4 to engage with an agenda of equality that had been thrashed out through years of activism in every corner of British life - politics, trade unionism, academia, business, voluntary organisations. The mighty BBC and ITV also came to face real scrutiny of their treatment of women.

Progress was made on other fronts too. New independent production companies sprang up making programmes for the new channel. They eventually won the right to do business with the BBC and ITV too. It was a pluralist success story. The independent production sector in the UK now accounts for half of all television production in the UK, worth £1.35 billion a year. Along the way some women got rich or rose to the top alongside the men. There are now women chief executives, channel controllers, department heads, star presenters and company bosses. It would appear that the equality battle was won a long time ago.

So new research from Skillset, the government-sponsored training body for the creative media industries, should shake people out of their complacency. In a packed meeting at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts recently, Skillset’s Kate O’Connor set it out plain. While employment overall in television has shrunk by 10 per cent in the past three years, five thousand women have left compared to 750 men. Women slightly outnumber men at entry level, but after the age of 35 the exodus begins. ‘After 50, the numbers of women in the industry plummet,’ she said. The research also shows that compared to men, women are more qualified, overworked and underpaid, and less likely than men to be in a long-term relationship or to have dependent children. Women freelances work much longer than men and earn far less.

‘The statistics are grim’, said media commentator Kate Bulkley, in the chair.  Simon Shaps, chair of the National Film and Television School, said: ‘I’m genuinely horrified’.  The research paints a clear picture of institutionalised discrimination, industry-wide, against women, and the key problem is the age-old, inescapable issue of women’s role as mothers. The moment women give birth, their careers in television embark on a downward trajectory.

Despite the towering presence of the BBC, technological and market changes have rendered the UK television industry fragmented and to a significant extent de-unionised. Freelance work on short-term contracts with little employment protection or benefits has proliferated. One of the panellists at BAFTA, Rebecca Barrie, left the industry and became a psychotherapist. ‘I was a freelance producer working for independent companies. The structure made it very difficult to go back in after having a baby.’ Some progress has come through legislation on maternity rights and flexible working that improved the position of women in staff jobs. But all too often it is left to individual women to fit in with an industry whose workforce is mostly powerless and at the beck and call of employers.

Camilla Lewis, an executive with global media giant Bertelsmann, and Jay Hunt, the powerful controller of BBC1, both emphasised the importance of the personal qualities of women in ‘finding ways through’. ‘It’s a huge privilege to work in this industry,’ said Hunt. ‘I always thought it was my responsibility to find ways through to make it work for me.’ ‘You can choose to cope and make it work,’ said Lewis. ‘It’s about your attitude.’ They had little to say about the big picture. ‘There are certain things institutions can do but as individuals we have to take responsibility for finding solutions and believing in what we are capable of,’ said Hunt.

It was a shockingly complacent stance for a BBC executive – a cadre who’ve been under fire for their inflated salaries – to take. The ‘coping’ message asks women to see their floundering as personal failure and lets the big guns off the hook. Rebecca Barrie retorted: ‘I didn’t leave the industry because I couldn’t cope. I left because there was no structure.’ Sharon Elliott of the television union BECTU said: ‘It is for the industry to respond to the resourcefulness of women.’

It takes organisation, leadership and struggle on the part of broad alliances of women, often over decades, to get progress on equality and stop discrimination against women.  But there was little strategic awareness in the BAFTA meeting of the wider contexts, and the campaigning aimed at big targets that leads to change and progress. No-one spoke about the looming general election, the possibility of a serious fall in the numbers of women in Parliament and the imminent cuts in public spending which will inevitably weaken the public policy agendas that can improve women’s working lives. Nor was there any debate about the future of television, the importance of public service broadcasting, the political and economic challenges it faces or the role of the media, and media workers, in our democracy.

At least Kate Kinninmont, chief executive of Women in Film and Television, part of a global network of 10,000 women in screen industries, had more to say: ‘Trade union membership is down, and people are not covered by employment protection legislation. We need to incentivise independent companies to work in a fairer way.’ She wants production companies to sign up to new policy on the employment of women which the broadcasters – their customers – can enforce. Simon Shaps agreed: ‘Anything that depends on individuals becoming more ingenious is likely to fail. An intervention is needed. The agenda is clear.’

The industry can and does change. Production techniques and the deployment of the workforce have been transformed by digital technology. Public policy changes have allowed businesses to grow. But progress on fair employment has stalled and now a generation of women has disappeared from the industry.

Without radical action to tackle this unfolding crisis, history will show that this is the era when women wanting to make careers in television ran into the buffers.  Yet it is essential to the economy and our aging society that television, like other industries, provides life –long work for women.  Women 32 or under now will be 68 before they can retire. Women need to keep working as longevity increases.

This ‘creative industry’ needs to think harder about how it organises itself, and change. Its leaders must make this a priority and focus hard on innovation if they are not to entrench the grim discrimination against women that has now been exposed.

And this is not just a fair employment issue. openDemocracy has now started a forum to debate the future of public service broadcasting (PSB) in response to the BBC’s recent Strategy Review    MP Frank Field, in launching the forum, says that the BBC sets standards for broadcasters the world over. It is funded by ‘Britain’s last remaining poll tax’ and only manages to sustain its funding regime because it is trusted and critical to the achievement of creative excellence and effective scrutiny of the powerful.  The quality of our television affects the very nature of our democracy, society and culture. It really matters who our media workers are: the workforce must be as pluralist as our politics needs to be.  If our television industry is dominated by men, with only younger women and a few resilient older women, most probably childless or high flyers, contributing their talents and ideas, our democracy and national life are diminished.


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