Why don’t more women write for TV?

Stereotypes in screenwritingFollowing on from our discussion late last year about the split between male and female writers on UK screens, Emma Reeves, show creator, playwright and WGGB award winner, has been doing some research with the Writers Guild of Great Britain. She’s written a guest blog for us about their findings.

It’s an interesting – and rather shocking – read.

Over to Emma…

Why don’t more women write for TV?

Recently, Polly Hill, the Controller of BBC drama, unveiled her latest slate of BBC drama commissions.

Every one of them was written by a man. The only partial exception was The Woman in White, adapted from Wilkie Collins’ novel by Fiona Seres (although the BBC press release didn’t mention her full name).

This sort of thing has happened at least twice before in very recent history – when the BBC proudly unveiled “Original British Drama” trailers with no speaking female characters, triggering minor Twitterstorms in both cases.

The lack of female voices onscreen cannot be unconnected to the lack of female writers employed by the producers of high-end, prestigious drama.

British TV has a gender problem

It seems that, when it comes to commissioning writers, British TV has a gender problem.

Women writers are under-represented as a whole. And the higher the budget and prestige of the show, the less likely it is to be written by a woman.

Drawing attention to these facts makes people angry. But it doesn’t make the facts any less true.

Last year, I was asked to speak on a panel at Totally Serialised Festival “about women writing for TV”. I agreed, despite having no particular specialist knowledge of the area; I was a woman, after all, and had written for TV. I was slightly taken aback when I saw that the panel was advertised under the slightly provocative title, “Why Don’t More Women Write for TV?” It was a question I couldn’t answer, and one that inevitably triggers further questions. How many women do write for TV? Is it enough? What percentage of TV commissions are given to female writers?

After a year of research and consultation, I can certainly tell you that not enough British television is written by women.

WGGB research

The WGGB TV Committee decided to look into the situation – how under-represented were women writers in British TV? We soon discovered that no broadcasters undertook equality and diversity monitoring of their freelance writers. There were no statistics available, so we undertook our own broad-brushstrokes research, using IMDB.com and the Radio Times to find out what percentage of TV episodes were written by women.

We concentrated on primetime TV as these are the only shows which still list the writers in the Radio Times. However, we did our own separate research into daytime soap Doctors.

Detailed figures paint a clear picture

Analysing data from the five main channels over a five month period, we found out that 70% of all prime-time drama credited to a single writer was written by male writers, and 30% by women writers.

There was only one week when slightly more drama (55%) was written by women than men. There were several weeks when 75% or more of primetime drama episodes were written by men.

Primetime TV includes Continuing Drama (soaps), often seen as a “women’s genre” – but we found that this was not necessarily the case. Of 106 episodes of Eastenders, for example, we found that 70 were written by men – almost exactly 2/3 of available episodes.

Looking beyond primetime, we carried out a survey of 2960 episodes of Doctors written between 2000 and 2015. We found that 58% of the large pool of writers were men, but they wrote 64% of the episodes. And, looking at the number of episodes per writer, the statistics did show a definite bias towards male writers.

38 writers were commissioned to write only 1 episode. Of these, 70 were women (51%) and 68 were men (49%). Of the writers commissioned to write 2 episodes, 26% were women and 74% were men.

The pattern of filtering out female voices continued. Of writers commissioned for more than 35 episodes, the breakdown was as follows. 25 writers in total wrote 35+ episodes. Of these, 8 were women (32%) and 17 were men (68%). There were 1274 episodes in this category. 451 were written by women (35%) and 823 by men (65%).

Does this contradict popular perception?

None of this was particularly surprising to me. But I think some people might still be surprised. There’s a popular perception that it’s now “easier” for women to break into TV writing. That the growing numbers of female producers, executive producers and commissioners have rebalanced the scales in favour of women.

I am grateful to Polly Hill for thoroughly debunking that myth.

Far from being advantaged by their gender, women are still considerably disadvantaged. Considering that women constitute the majority of the British population (51%), if there were a truly level playing field, one would expect to see at least 51% of drama at all levels written by women. More, in the case of “female-skewed” genres such as soap and classic drama adaptations.

Clearly, this is very far from being the case.

Why is this happening?

Why are women’s voices being silenced? Is it because, even in 2015, male writers are seen as “safer” – and female writers as “risky”?

At a recent round table on diversity at the House of Commons, Amanda Ariss from Creative Diversity Network spoke of her surprise at how risk-averse and conservative the TV industry is. According to Ariss, we need to ask ourselves who is making TV – and how are the commissioning decisions made? Decision makers, she said, underestimate audiences. Audiences respond surprisingly well when presented with a wider choice and more surprising stories.

The commissioning mind-set which perpetuates the silencing of the female majority does not, of course, only affect women. It also results in a lack of representation for people of colour, disabled people, working class people – indeed, ultimately, anyone unfortunate enough to lack the privilege and connections with which so of those on media “power lists” have been blessed.

Gender balance less important?

Gender balance is only one small aspect of equality for writers. But that’s no reason to ignore it. Often, attempts to point out the lack of female voices are met with the argument that gender inequality is “less important” than inequalities of race, class, region, sexuality, transgender vs cisgender, religion, etc. But it doesn’t have to be a competition.

Gender inequality has its own causes, vested interests, ancient mechanisms and entrenched prejudices and they should be tackled – or things will never get better.

Emma Reeves

Emma Reeves is an experienced writer working across adult and children’s TV drama and the stage.

Her TV credits include The Dumping Ground, Tracy Beaker Returns, Young Dracula, Sadie J, The Story of Tracy Beaker, Sadie Jones, Belonging, The Murder of Princess Diana (Lifetime Channel), Half Moon Investigations, Spirit Warriors and Doctors. Her 13 part series, Eve, co-created with Leopard TV for CBBC started transmitting in January 2015.

Her stage work includes her acclaimed adaptation of Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather (national tour and West End 2014, Olivier nomination) and prior to that adaptations of Carrie’s War (Lillian Baylis Theatre 2006, West End 2009 and national tour 2010), Little Women (West End) and Cool Hand Luke (West End Autumn 2011).

Emma won the 2016 Writers Guild of Great Britain Award for Best Childrens’ TV Episode for Eve. In 2011 Emma was nominated by the Writers’ Guild for Best Children’s Television Script for Tracy Beaker Returns: What You Don’t Know and again in 2013 for her script from The Dumping Ground series 2. In 2012 Tracy Beaker Returns won the RTS award for Best Children’s Drama with Emma’s nominated script Money.