Advanced Television

Study reveals extent of inequality for female screenwriters

May 23, 2018

The under-representation of women in film and TV continues to be a hot topic of discussion, with Hollywood elite, industry professionals and audiences calling for change on how women are represented in the industry, and beyond.  An independent report commissioned by the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain (WGGB) and funded by ALCS, has revealed how deeply the under-representation of female writers runs in the UK film and TV industry.

Evidence of the lack of equality and opportunity for female screenwriters in the UK has been revealed in a new independent report, released by WGGB, the trade union representing professional writers. The report highlights the wide gap between male and female writers across film and TV, where in the latter, prime-time, comedy and light entertainment are particularly under-represented.  The report covers 10 years and makes recommendations for change in the industry.

Until now evidence of systemic gender bias has remained anecdotal and as such has been frequently dismissed.  The report has gathered data from over 30 sources, which backs claims of persistent and deep-rooted gender inequality over a decade, giving an accurate picture of the under-representation for the first time ever.

The figures reveal that only 16 per cent of all working screenwriters in film in the UK are female and the percentage of UK TV episodes that were predominantly female-written stood at just 28 per cent. This dips to only 14 per cent for women writing for prime-time TV, demonstrating the serious lack of authentic female voices and their opportunity to tell their stories.

Evidence gathered in the report entitled ‘Gender Inequality and Screenwriters: A study of the impact of gender on equality of opportunity for screenwriters and key creatives in the UK film and television industries’ shows that female writers are severely under-represented in the film and TV industry in the UK and that there has been no significant improvement over 10 years. The report demonstrates that unconscious bias among hirers, lack of formal or open hiring systems, inadequate equality data collection and ineffective regulatory systems are all playing a part. Of over 200 working writers polled, the report revealed that only 5 per cent agreed that “the way writers are hired, and scripts are commissioned, is fair and free from discrimination” and the majority of respondents suggested that they had seen evidence of discrimination over the course of their careers.

The report highlights the wider issues female writers face through being pigeonholed by genre and the obstacles experienced in the move from continuing drama series or children’s television to prime-time drama, comedy or light entertainment.  Despite female-written films and TV programmes engaging audiences in the millions, many women writers are being denied the same opportunities as their male counterparts to progress in their careers, with only 14 per cent of prime-time programming being predominantly female-written, and with female representation particularly low in comedy (11 per cent) and light entertainment (9 per cent). 

While the report highlights the disparity between male and female writers opportunities, it should be noted that a number of the most commercially successful and critically well received TV prime-time drama and comedies over the last few years have been written by women, debunking any myth that female writers are not as successful ‘at the box office’.  Examples include; Victoria (ITV) created and written by Daisy Goodwin; Call the Midwife (BBC) created and written by Heidi Thomas; Girlfriends (ITV) created and written by Kay Mellor; Happy Valley (BBC) created and written by Sally Wainwright, Three Girls (BBC), written by Nicole Taylor, Ordeal by Innocence (BBC) written by Sarah Phelps, Fleabag (BBC) written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Catastrophe (Channel Four), co-written and co-created by Sharon Horgan and This Country (BBC), co-created and co-written by Daisy May Cooper, alongside continuing dramas including Coronation Street, EastEnders and Casualty.

In film, the figure is even lower; only 11 per cent of UK feature films are predominantly female-written, just 16 per cent of all writers credited on at least one UK feature film were female and fewer than 7 per cent of films with a budget greater than £10 million are predominantly female-written, despite the positive impact of films written by women on both box office revenues and critics responses.  Combining budget data with UK and worldwide box office gross, the report revealed that films written predominantly by female writers tend to be have higher revenues, both domestically and internationally, than those written predominantly by their male counterparts. Examples of female screenwriters writing commercially successful and critically well received films include Jane Goldman (Kingsman series, The Woman in Black), Andrea Gibb (Swallows & Amazons), Abi Morgan (Suffragette) and Emma Thompson (Bridget Jones’ Baby).

WGGB President and BAFTA-nominated writer Olivia Hetreed (Girl with a Pearl Earring) said; “I have been asked about the dearth of female screenwriters in this country ever since my first feature film put me into that endangered species bracket. I and others were reassuring: ‘It’s just a matter of time. It’s getting better. It will work itself out.’ But more than a decade later, this new research shows that the number of women writing films has flatlined at abjectly low levels (16 per cent at best).

She continued: “Female-written films are more successful and more popular than average, but the new research explains why market forces don’t operate in the face of the risky financing and old-fashioned hiring practices of UK film-making. Faced with such clear evidence we expect that commissioners, especially public funders, will work much harder to give equal opportunities to women and other under-represented writers, who in turn will produce work reflecting all our hopes, fears and aspirations.”

Screenwriter Kay Mellor said; “No woman writer has got through without a struggle and it’s criminal that I can count on one hand how many women signature writers there are on TV right now. Sometimes it takes a collective to say – “this is not fair” and it’s not. It’s time things changed.”

The timely report makes its mark in the midst of the TIME’S UP movement, which calls to end prevalent inequality, sexual harassment and abuse that has been exposed in the film and TV industries globally following the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and earlier this year a group of 76 TV drama writers signed an open letter of protest to UK broadcasters when ITV revealed that its drama slate for 2018 had only one female writer out of nine. The report calls for significant change and provides a range of recommendations and potential avenues to increase the quantity of female-written content.  As a result of the shocking new research, WGGB has launched the Equality Writes campaign, calling for immediate action to reverse this trend.  The campaign is supported by Sandi Toksvig, Jack Thorne, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Gaby Chiappe, Lucy Kirkwood and Katherine Ryan, among others. WGGB is keen to work with the industry in the UK to effect positive change to combat the discrimination against women screenwriters, and also other under-represented groups, e.g. BAME writers, LGBT+ writers, writers with disabilities and working-class writers.

Broadcast personality and writer, Sandi Toksvig said: “There is no shortage of talented women writers in the UK, and therefore no excuse that so few of them are getting commissions in film and TV. WGGB’s Equality Writes campaign is a vital one, and one that I – as a member – wholeheartedly support.”

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