Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Vamps, Vixens and Feminists

By Tracy Brabin

A big thank you to the Sphinx Theatre Company who put in place a fantastic conference yesterday at The National Theatre - ‘Vamps, Vixens and Feminists’, to discuss the Gender Equality Duty that came into force April 07.

A feisty full house of women and men discussed the issues around the biggest change in sex equality legislation since the Equal Pay Act.

The Equality Duty has two main responsibilities:
  • to promote equality of opportunity between men and women
  • to eliminate unlawful sex discrimination and harassment, including against transsexual people.
Giving due regard to proactive promotion of gender equality within their organisations, public bodies now have a legal obligation to promote equality between men and woman. Something we know – as writers, actors, directors, cinematographers and choreographers etc just doesn’t seem to be happening on the ground.

And there we some galling statistics. Sphinx crunched the numbers and discovered that...

Out of 140 theatre productions, 98 were written by men, 13 by women and the rest mixed collaborations. Of these 140 productions, 97 were directed by men. Out of 1100 roles for actors over the same period, 677 were for men and 423 were for women. And out of the films produced in one year – 250 - 12% were by women writers with only 9% directing them.

However, the most shocking statistic came from Dr Katherine Rake, the Director of the Fawcett Society. She explained that the pay gap between men and women is still so great that compared to men’s salaries, on average, women are, over a year actually working for free from October 31st . If you’re a part-time worker, it’s even worse and you can expect to work ‘for free’ from the end of June.

The Writers' Guild TV Committee added their numbers. Looking at one month’s Radio Times, they discovered out of 179 programmes listed, 129 were written by men and 50 by women - 28% female and 72% male. In radio it was even worse with 37 male writers and 12 female writers – 24% women, 72% men.

To examine how we change this status quo, Baroness Prosser of Battersea OBE (Deputy chair of the Equality and Human Rights Committee) introduced the event with Oona King (ex MP and Head of Diversity for Channel 4) chairing.

There we several exciting sessions, broken down into disciplines.

Director Lucy Pitman-Wallace (Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in 2003) was in a director’s discussion with Giles Croft, (Artistic Director of Nottingham Theatre) and Janet Suzman (award winning actor and director).

Dr Katherine Rake talked to Beatrix Campbell (the acclaimed journalist and playwright), Kate Kinninmont (Chief Executive of Women in Film and Television) and Jean Rogers (Equity’s Vice President).

Dr Viv Rogers (Professor in Theatre Studies at University of Manchester) also talked to Bea Campbell about female stereotyping and much lauded actor Kate Buffery discussed the lack of complex roles for women.

Commissioning drama from women writers, ensuring complex, exciting and challenging parts for women was discussed by BBC Executive Producer Hilary Salmon and Head of Drama at ITV Laura Mackie.

Myself, Tanika Gupta (White Boy, Sugar Mummies) and Colin Teevan ( How Many Miles to Basra, The Seven Pomegranate Seeds) talked to David Edgar about the difficulties that writing for women can entail.

The whole event was at turns depressing, uplifting, empowering and hilarious and I really hope something positive will come from the fabulous energy created by so many intelligent and sparky women and men who know the only way to change anything is to shout out and be heard.

And looking around the packed theatre, thinking of all the experience and talent in the room, I wondered why we didn’t just all collaborate to make shows we want to watch with people we want to work with. As the old saying goes…if the lobster was smarter, she’d know that if she collaborated with the other lobsters in the pot, they might all stand a chance of getting out alive.


  1. It was a really interesting morning and you spoke really well, Tracy.

    Another useful statistic from Oona King made it clear that diversity can bring benefits rather than costs: She said that box office returns on films written by women screenwriters typically earn $1.26 per $1 while those written by men earn $1.19 per $1. (But women are paid 12% less, as they are in the world of work generally)

    I love the idea of a lobster revolution.

  2. Thanks for this, Tracy. It's scary but at least once we've identified the problem, we can fix it. The Guild will be working very closely with the others concerned on this issue, and we'll keep everyone up to date on our progress. And why do I suddenly have a craving for lobster?

  3. Astonishing statistics.

    The Lobster Action Plan is the future!


  4. Anonymous6:39 pm

    The industry is run on patronage not competition of talent within a free market. The answer lies partially there. If you can't change the system create a new one. That might be easier for small theatre companies than Hollywood. As for the television industry: how does anyone break in to it. That is why we use the term lucky break! No one mentioned the Writers Room. What are they doing to induce new talent both male and female? Any thoughts on this out there?

    What are agents doing to promote equality? Do they care as long as they get their commission. They don't even like taking on new work and they never seem to give a straight answer on what they do at these events I've been on.

    As for the Guild, it has been about for fifty years - I was in it for almost ten - and I never heard of it addressing this problem or doing any surveys or reporting at the AGM of any lobbying on this matter before.

    I once wrote to the General Secretary about the lack of opportunity for new writers (not so unrelated to this issue) and pointed out that the Writers Room only met two days each month. After a few attempts the response was: It is not for the Guild to tell the BBC how to do its job, or words to that effect. Why was I paying this man, I thought?

    It educated me as to where the guild really stands in the scheme of things.

  5. 'I wondered why we didn’t just all collaborate to make shows we want to watch with people we want to work with. As the old saying goes…if the lobster was smarter, she’d know that if she collaborated with the other lobsters in the pot, they might all stand a chance of getting out alive'

    That's what I was thinking. Perhaps after the next one we have a networking event where we make teams of commissioner/producer/writer/director/actresses and up the quota that way? You heard Oona, change don't happen unless you make it!

  6. A positive (if slightly exaggerated) note: The Guardian says Female playwrights set to take the West End by storm...

  7. I can't let Anonymous's comment go unanswered. It's never been easy for new writers to break into the business, at any time. And it's not easy for established writers to keep on working either. I've never known a time, even after finishing a successful series that I didn't feel like I was back to square one, staring at that blank page; having to sell myself all over again. But it isn't anyone's responsibility to keep us working but us.

    The Guild is a trade union whose main function is the negotiation of minimum term agreements to protect writers in various media. I think it does that job grandly and, for such a small union, punches far above its weight. The Guild also protects writers' working conditions. If writers feel like they're been treating like dirt whilst on a production, the Guild is, even at this moment, looking into that. But, as the General Secretary might have written you, it is not the Guild's right to tell any company who or who not to hire.

    And I know many industrious, caring agents whose raison d'etre is the finding and nurturing of talent with whom they'll share a productive, career-long relationship. Sure there are duff ones as well but I respect and applaud the many great ones, including mine.

    Now I must go back to the daily uphill struggle of the blank screen and trying to make something out of nothing. I wish there was an easier way but, if there is, I surely haven't found it yet.

  8. Anonymous4:35 pm

    But an established writer is not back at square one and you know it, Ms Renard, as you're one of them. You have contacts and a track record within the BBC of all places, something that a new writer - even those with M.A.s in screenwriting would envy, and if an agent really did need to take on new clients he would come to you with your track record and not to an unknown. Now stop being so disingenuous, I'm sure your little serial made you a nice packet - excuse the pun.

    As for the Guild, it can't have it both ways: it can't fight for the rights of writers and then tell them that it is not for it to tell the BBC how to do its job. That would be a paradox.

  9. Anne Hogben6:58 pm

    How many women actually get paid work in TV and Radio?
    In this week's Radio Times, a total of 53 writers are credited. Of these, 41 are men and 12 are women - that's 70% men and 30% women. That's bad but at least it's not as bad as last week when out of a total of 52 writers, 41 were men and 12 were women - that's 75% men and 25% women. The week beginning 23rd May was even worse with 80% male and a truly shocking 20% female.
    What's going on? Are there just more male writers out there or are male writers simply better than women writers? If so, why? Are the people who commission writers biased in favour of men?

  10. All great questions, Anne. Of course we know that men writers aren't better than women. But what I'd question is the male bias of a lot of series. How many SAS/ cop/ serial killer series do the likes of James Nesbitt/ Ross Kemp/ A.N. Other yomp through? Do you think producers consider women writers for those... even if we were yearning to write them? And how many women feature in comedy writing teams for panel shows like Buzzcocks/ HIGN/ 8 Out Of Ten Cats, etc? I'd say none. Talk about boys' clubs.

    And I understand what you're saying, Anon. As usual in life, the truth lies somewhere between us! Yes I have contacts that I've worked hard to build up throughout the years. But these days the TV exec's stay in any key position resembles that of a WWI fighter pilot. After a couple of missions, they just aren't there. Of course one will always get new people in key positions, and so one should, but it'd help if they actually knew people's track records. The Guild's new TV Good Practice Guide (out any moment now) recommends people google each other before a meeting. I recently took one meeting with a BBC bod who didn't realise I'd written before. By the time I finished the useless meeting, I was beginning to doubt I had either!

  11. SueTeddern9:12 am

    I'd be v interested to know how the figures compare in radio and TV. In other words, are there more or less women writing for TV than radio? Or vice versa?? I think the Society of Authors are also on to this, re radio. Maybe we could join forces...

  12. Anonymous10:25 pm

    Can anyone enlighten me on what Laura Mackie had to say? Is she commissioning anyone male or female?

  13. I really think the WG should get involved with a campaign about this. I wanted to attend the day but had to be in a meeting up north so couldn't get down to London. Reading this info about the days events makes me determined to attend any similar events in the future. It's an outrage. I am genuinely shocked about the Radio Times stats! Women need to be heard.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.