Historian Dr Bettany Hughes battled “extraordinary prejudice” when she first tried to enter the TV industry and believes there has to be “radical revolution” for women to achieve equality.
Hughes points out that women feature in a tiny percentage of recorded history because they have been raising children and believes childcare provision needs to be re-examined today.
“The only place to have narrowed the gender gap is Iceland because men have been encouraged to take up 50% of the childcare,” she said.
Hughes was speaking on a panel at Diversify, a conference organised by Broadcast and Screen International this week and supported by Creative Skillset.
The former presenter of Britain’s Secret Treasures for ITV and BBC’s Divine Religion believes women must be persistent to succeed. “I was shocked that there weren’t more women with authorial voices on television and I was sickened to the heart by the reaction I got when I tried to break into that field,” said Hughes.
“Although I hadn’t been intending to make a career in broadcasting, I had such fire in my belly I decided to do it.”
Syeda Irtizaali, commissioning editor of entertainment at Channel 4, said comedy and entertainment was also an area in which women can be left frustrated due to, “an inequality of attitude.”
She added that it was a cultural issue, and the responsibility to make change was down to the individual as well as industry.
However, Irtizaali said improvements had been made in her department where half of the staff are female, with a number of C4 schemes having an impact in areas including leadership and investigative journalism.
“Cultural change has to flow from the top down…but one issue is the difficulty of keeping people when they get to the mid-level, she said. “I mentor people who find it difficult to progress because of cultural attitudes but it helps if there are people at the top helping them to get there.”
Women in film
Chair of the panel, Elizabeth Karlsen, producer and co-founder of Number 9 Films and chair of Women in Film and TV said having women at the top such as Christine Langan at BBC Films and Tessa Ross at Film4 had made a difference to the film industry.
Nevertheless, according to BFI research, British films directed by women made up a total of just 7.8% of last year’s output. This translates into 165 male directors and only 14 female directors, the lowest proportion since 2007.
Karlsen said childcare, male commissioning editors, women’s history being silenced and unconscious bias all came into play.
Writer and director Sally El Hosaini said she had also faced prejudice when it came to the funding of her film, My Brother the Devil.
“A public financier told my producer: ‘She’s a nice woman, can she really do a film about all these guys?’ That spurred me on.”
El Hosaini added that there was a lot of talk about women in the industry but it was time to take action. Addressing childcare was one issue – “as a freelancer you have to choose between your creative babies and your real babies”- but she also pointed to a Swedish Film Institute initiative which ensures that all public money is split evenly between men and women.
The panel agreed that there was a stigma attached to quotas and Karlsen added that it would be a strain on smaller production companies particularly, but said the Swedish example was “simple maths.”
City University director of brodcasting, Lis Howell said women were underrepresented on-screen as well as behind the scenes and that broadcasters hide behind the fact that they can’t engage in “social engineering” to boost the numbers.
“The person least likely to be represented on television is over 50, lower-middle working class, from the North of England. Who watches the most TV…?”
Audience member Janice Turner, Bectu diversity officer, called for greater accountability in the industry and for people to stop passing the buck.
“We are still waiting for the BFI to reveal whether it will carry out diversity monitoring,” she said.