Katherine Ryan: “It never occurred to me that life might be harder because you’re a woman”

The Canadian comedian has witnessed both sexism and ageism in her industry – but she is positive that television is becoming more diverse

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“I didn’t really realise that I was going to have more obstacles because I was a woman,” says Katherine Ryan. “It was never something that I thought about. I grew up in a real feminist household, a real matriarchy. My mother was a businesswoman, my grandmother was a businesswoman – it never occurred to me that life might be harder because you’re a woman. It wasn’t until later and I had a bigger sense of the world that I realised that.” 

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The penny might have dropped when Ryan found herself repeatedly appearing on panel shows as the only female comedian among a seemingly endless roster of men. A Canadian best known for appearing on British shows – from Mock the Week and 8 Out of 10 Cats to Would I Lie To You? and Have I Got News For You – Ryan is next on Channel 4 with a new documentary in which she has fun “rooting around in rich people’s lives”.

She admits that when she was filming How’d You Get So Rich? she was worried that the millionaires were going to be “entitled, stuffy” people from “a lineage of privilege and money” – but instead she found a range of diverse characters who grafted hard to make their fortune. “One man was in the Mafia and was caught after he embezzled a bunch of millions from the government,” she explains. “He paid it all back and then he made money again after finding god and giving motivational speeches for athletes.” 

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How’d You Get So Rich?

It’s definitely a change in company from her panel show colleagues, which despite the BBC’s ban on all-male line-ups, are still lacking in women. Can she count on her fingers the times she’s appeared on one of these programmes with another woman? “It’s never happened on Mock the Week,” she reveals. “It’s happened loads on Have I Got News for You. And Frankie Boyle is really inclusive…” On Boyle’s American Autopsy the female participants – shock, horror – actually outnumbered the men.

Ryan confirms that sexism is still an issue in the comedy industry. “I have been in rooms and witnessed people saying, ‘Oh, we cant have that women on, she’s too old’ but she’ll be younger than some of the men we’ve put on. I’ve absolutely witnessed that… and kicked right the fuck off about it.”

“It is impossible to ignore that there is a pressure for us to look a certain way, and I’ve definitely had my wardrobe criticised more than the men have. For sure.” 

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Ian Hislop and Katherine Ryan on Have I Got News For You

Ryan, at 33 now a prominent name in the British comedy scene, is proactive in trying to elevate female comics. “If I’m in the position where I get to hire someone, where I get to decide who joins me on tour, then I am mindful about that and I try to suggest women that I know, who I think deserve more exposure.”

The efforts to improve gender, racial and class diversity on television are, while far from the finish line, making progress. A 2013 report found that just 0.18% of the most popular comedy shows broadcast were made by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) directors, but Ryan is positive about the fact that this is changing. “I am noticing a lot more diversity on television. Whether that be people of colour, people of different backgrounds, I think there are more working class comedians than in previous years, different political leanings are being represented and there are more women.”

With the rise of female comdey writers and actors like Sharon Horgan and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Ryan is certainly in good company. The list of female comics Ryan likes and admires is extensive: Sara Pascoe, Aisling Bea, Roisin Conaty, Tiff Stevenson, Lolly Adefope, Jayde Adams… the list goes on.

Sarah Millican, she adds, “is an example of someone who sticks her neck out for other women a lot”. Ryan says that if she’s recording a special, Millican will often call to congratulate and offer her advice.

So what advice does Katherine Ryan have for young women entering the comedy industry?

“I would probably tell them not to do it,” she laughs. “It does involve a lot of crazy hours and a lot of sacrifice – and I definitely have alienated myself from a lot of people who don’t want me telling their secrets on stage.”

In all seriousness though, she says that it’s about finding “what your authentic voice is and just communicating that as raw as you can. You’ll never make a success of yourself when you’re doing an impersonation of somebody else.”

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How’d You Get So Rich begins tonight at 10pm on Channel 4