Directors UK (DUK) is challenging broadcasters and producers to ensure that 30% of all shows are directed by women by 2017, after a major study found significant inequality in key genres, from crime drama to panel shows.

DUK unveiled Who’s Calling The Shots? Women Directors In British Television this week, which analyses a decade’s worth of British TV (2003-2012) and reveals that women are getting increasingly fewer opportunities in drama, entertainment and comedy in particular.

It wants the industry to reflect its own membership, some 27% of whom – 1,418 members – are female. Women directed 22.7% of the total episodes of the 142 returning series studied by DUK, and the results are very mixed.

Setting the threshold

Of those series, 41 have had no female directors at all, including ITV dramas Vera and Monroe; comedies PhoneShop and Mrs Brown’s Boys; and entertainment shows QI, Celebrity Juice and The Cube.

Just over a third – 53 series – passed DUK’s suggested threshold between 2003 and 2012, and four used exclusively female directors: Big Body Squad, series one of The Voice UK, Born To Be Different and Miranda.

Factual was the best-performing genre, with half of the shows directed by women, though they were over-represented in lifestyle, food, home and health programming.

In drama, period pieces were the most likely to be directed by women, at 27%, compared with detective and crime drama at 12%, and sci-fi and fantasy at 4%. DUK also looked at 2011-2012 in isolation, which showed period drama had risen to 32%, but that crime and sci-fi fell to 9% and 0% respectively.

Technology and science showed improvement: while 29% of shows over the decade to 2012 were directed by women, by 2011-2012, this was up to 38%.

The debate about the lack of women appearing on panel shows could also apply to the role of director: DUK research shows just 5% of gameshows/panel shows were directed by women in the period 2003-2012; this got worse in 2011-2012, dropping to 2%.

Directors UK vice-chair Beryl Richards, who also chairs its Women’s Working Group, said the research laid bare the lack of monitoring of equality among the largely freelance directors workforce. “Producers feel like they’ve achieved equality in their corporate culture, but their only focus has been on full-time staff,” she said.

In a move that could have repercussions for freelancers in general, DUK has called on the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky to make monitoring of freelance workers an explicit delivery requirement for producers, as part of the commissioning process.

Richards pointed out that several drama series seen as a good springboard for directors, such as Being Human, Skins, Misfits and MI High, employed no female directors at all in 2011-12. “Those trusted credits go to men, who then get access to higher-end drama,” she said.

She described many female directors’ CVs as “eclectic”, and said they often revealed “a zigzag” career pattern compared with men. Richards added that assumptions around childcare issues “let companies off the hook”.

Directors UK chair Andrew Chowns criticised “risk-averse” commissioners for not looking beyond familiar names.

“They seem incredibly cautious about having anyone they don’t know or see,” he said. “It’s a role that requires a lot of responsibility and you have to be a leader. Inevitably, producers send them names they know.”

The study examined in-house BBC and ITV shows, as well as productions from All3Media, Endemol, Fremantle, Kudos, Shed and Zodiak.

Shed, Zodiak and All3Media all passed the 30% barrier in 2011/2012, but the rest fell short, with Endemol and Fremantle trailing with 8% and 9% of shows directed by women respectively.

DUK plans to update the figures annually.