At Forscene we're used to controversial topics. After all, we were the ones telling the industry to move to the cloud in 2004, two years before the term was widely used. We'll be pushing the message of “Go Boxless” at IBC this year, so we thought we might as well tackle yet another provocative industry topic: whether women in broadcast get a rough ride. To get the conversation started, I interviewed two women from the industry. I promised anonymity so that they could speak freely and openly without fear of backlash.
First up was 'Sarah', a content manager for a leading video company. Sarah holds a first class honours degree in film studies from the University of Kent. She started her career as a runner and progressed into video producing before moving into marketing. Here’s what Sarah had to say:
The broadcast industry has always been seen as a man’s world, with men dominating roles. The Lumière brothers are famous worldwide for making the first film in 1894, but do you know who the first female filmmaker was? No, me neither. I had to Google it: Alice Guy-Blaché with “The Cabbage Fairy” in 1896.
There are many successful women in the industry: Elisabeth Murdoch is the founder of TV production company Shine, which is now run by Sophie Turner Laing as part of the Endemol-Shine Group Core-Media. Amanda Berry is the CEO of BAFTA, the biggest and most glamorous night of awards in Britain. Tessa Ross is controller of film and drama at Channel 4 and governor for the prestigious National Film & Television School.
So with all these great female talents, some of whom have been in the industry for a number of years, why did we have to wait until 2014 for IBC to hold the first “Females in Broadcast Industry” event? It’s pretty outrageous. But at least IBC is ahead of the NAB Show, who doesn’t do anything to recognise women independently. More widely, there’s the Women in Film & Television (WFTV) group, launched in 1989, which are leading the way in supporting women’s rights in the industry. There are also a number of other similar groups around the world. But it’s just not enough.
I personally believe that it is very difficult to be a woman in broadcast, as you constantly have to prove yourself — whether that’s showing that you can haul equipment around (oh, the number of times I’ve been asked “are you sure you can manage” by condescending men with half my strength!) or demonstrating that you can pull off producing a 10-part live reality TV series.
The thing that annoys me most is that women are so suited to the industry. We have excellent organisational skills and great attention to detail, meaning we make perfect producers, editors, camera operators, etc. However, the WFTV found that in 2014 and 2015 “women accounted for 26 percent of directors, writers, executive producers, producers, editors, and cinematographers…” Only 26 percent!
I’m happy to admit that I’m early on in my career, so some people might throw that in my face and tell me I’m chatting rubbish. But I’ve learnt a lot. I met a lot more female runners than male when I started out in the industry, so why is there still a huge discrepancy in the number of men versus women in high-ranking broadcast roles?
I believe it’s because we are far more ambitious, and seeing that we might not succeed quickly as a runner or whatever, we duck out and try other routes into the industry. Which is how I’ve come to work in the marketing department for one of the leading video software companies.
Next I spoke with 'Claire' who has a long and established career in broadcast, with roles including producer, director and executive producer. Here’s what Claire told me:
Yes, there are more men than women in technical roles in our industry. And yes, some of those men are sexist bastards. But are there fewer women in these roles because women are oppressed, denied opportunities, and treated unfairly in this industry? No.
I believe in equality. I believe that women are just as capable as men and that we should be treated accordingly. By that I mean the same — without bias or preferential treatment. I’ve been on the receiving end of a system designed to address historical discrimination by giving preference to previously disadvantaged individuals. You can’t address inequality with more inequality.
But women aren’t treated the same as men in our industry. Women have special groups — both within the industry and government — dedicated to our promotion within media. And the government (in both the US and the UK) invests millions every year into training and mentoring women into more technical roles within the industry. On the one hand we demand equality, while on the other we’re being given special treatment.
We’ve got equal rights. No one’s forcing us to drop out of school before graduating, making us choose home economics over maths, or preventing us from pursuing careers in engineering anymore. We’ve had the right to vote for less than a hundred years and equal pay for less than 50, so it’s going to take a while for us to work our way up the corporate ladder. Yes, men have been given a massive head start, but if we really want equality, we need to do that on our own strength and our own merit — not by making up quotas around boardroom tables.
There is another possible explanation for the fact that we still work in an industry dominated by men: We’re choosing not to compete.
The latest WISE report shows marked differences in the Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM) undergraduate subjects. STEM subjects attract both males and females, with males choosing engineering, technology, and computer science while females opt for medicine and veterinary science. Women might only make up 13 percent of the science, technology, and engineering industry in the UK, but we represent over 50 percent of the newsgathering and presentation workforce and over 40 percent of the production workforce. So it’s not that we’re under-represented in the industry as a whole. Maybe we’re just not that interested in the more technical roles. Is that such a bad thing?
Creative Skillset’s most recent media workforce survey [PDF] also reports that over 70 percent of women in the creative industries are under the age of 45. I’m sure there are a lot of different reasons for this, but I have no doubt that a big part of it is due to the demanding nature of the industry and the fact that only women can have babies. It takes time to get to the top, and if we’re dropping out to raise families then it’s little wonder that men are calling the shots. The government has extended flexible working to all employees, and from next year, tax-free childcare and shared parental leave will come into effect. Products like Forscene are making it easier to work remotely. Maybe all of those improvements will mean that more women will stay in the industry. Or maybe moms will still choose to stay home with their babies. That’s the important bit — it’s our decision.
Gender equality is essentially the right to choose without prejudice. I believe we’ve got that; the rest will come if we just give it time.
My personal view is that as a society we have an issue with gender equality, which won't disappear through passivity. Whilst I agree with Claire's points that positive discrimination only leads to resentment and inappropriate organisational structures, I also believe that there are subtleties in industry and society that hinder the fair and equal distribution of roles across genders. I do not believe that we are inherently sexist; I simply believe we are humans suffering from the human condition. As respected executive Allen Leighton said, "My job as chairman is to get the best possible brains around the table. Brains don't have a race, religion or gender, they're just brains." It seems that at least some people in the industry subscribe to that philosophy.