How do we create more opportunities for female TV writers?

You'd think there’s never been a better time to be a female screenwriter — so why do the statistics tell such a different story? RadioTimes.com unpicks the issues screenwriters and commissioners face

Women's Words diversity, Getty

You might think there’s never been a better time to be a female screenwriter. Over the past twelve months, we’ve seen a number of great, prime-time dramas all penned by women, from Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Killing Eve and Gwyneth Hughes’ Vanity Fair, to Daisy May Cooper’s This Country.

Advertisement

But in May this year, a report commissioned by the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain blew the lid open on the UK television industry. Just 14 per cent of prime-time TV is written by women. The number of TV shows penned by female writers hasn’t improved for the past ten years, and just one in six screenwriters working in film and television is a woman.

No broadcaster was exempt from the report. I don’t think any of us came out smelling of roses,” admits Ade Rawcliffe, head of diversity in ITV’s commissioning team.

RadioTimes.com has launched a new campaign – Women’s Words – celebrating female screenwriters and asking why there aren’t more women’s voices on British TV

Read more: www.radiotimes.com/womenswords

Women's Words, BBC Pictures

So, why aren’t more women getting their shows made? 

We reached out to screenwriters, the major channels, streaming services and an independent diversity body to unpack the big issues: commissioning, opportunities, targets, and the evolving way we all watch TV.

The commissioners

Each major channel has a commissioning team – an experienced group immersed in television and responsible for shaping our TV landscape. All our favourite programmes – from Bodyguard to Love Island – pass across their desks.

If we’re examining the diversity of the talent telling stories on TV, it makes sense to start with the commissioners.

Susan Wokoma, an actress and screenwriter, best-known for her role as Michaela Coel’s sister in Chewing Gum, tells RadioTimes.com that gender equality in commissioning is vital but – at present – out of reach because TV’s “gatekeepers” aren’t sufficiently diverse.

“I really believe that ultimately nothing is going to change that much unless the gatekeepers change,” she says. “It means people losing their jobs, that’s why it’s not gonna happen soon.”

“I just believe that in those rooms where decisions are made… where there is an equal amount of women and men in a room, the decisions are different. I’ve experienced that [as a writer].”

Susan Wokoma (courtesy of Susan Wokoma)
Susan Wokoma

ITV’s diversity chief Rawcliffe sympathises with Wokoma, but, she says, they “can’t go and sack everybody to increase diversity and inclusion at that [higher] level”.

Instead, she proposes encouraging existing employees “to be more inclusive and be more diverse and give opportunities to people as part of their job”.

Tunde Ogungbesan, head of diversity at the BBC, agrees, saying that to achieve a wide range of diverse programmes, “it is vital that all of [the BBC’s] commissioners consider diversity when they are commissioning content”.

“Diversity needs to be hardwired into everything we do,” said the BBC’s Director of Content, Charlotte Moore, at 2018’s Steve Hewitt Memorial Lecture in October. “On screen, off screen and in commissioning.”

But is there actually a gender gap amongst TV’s gatekeepers?

It’s an important question. The upper ranks of the television industry are often thought to be populated by white, middle-aged men — and the same might be assumed of commissioning teams.

But on closer examination, it seems that’s not always the case. RadioTimes.com took a look at the commissioning teams for drama and comedy at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. Across both departments, all three broadcasters have more women commissioners than men, and both ITV and Channel 4’s drama and comedy teams are headed up by women.

And if you combine both sets of commissioning units — drama and comedy — all three broadcasters have at least a 50/50 gender split.

So, if there are so many women with the power to commission new shows, how come there aren’t a greater proportion of female screenwriters penning the latest comedies and big-budget dramas?

ITV’s open about the fact that they currently commission more drama scripts written by men.

“We know from the data at the moment that we are under-representing women,” says ITV’s Rawcliffe. “I think it’s quite obvious to us that we need to do better.”

“We get fewer pitches from women than from men, and obviously we would hope to get the same number for both [genders].”

Olivia Cooke as Becky Sharp and Claudia Jessie as Amelia Sedley (Vanity Fair) (ITV)
Olivia Cooke as Becky Sharp and Claudia Jessie as Amelia Sedley in Gwyneth Hughes’ Vanity Fair (ITV)

Vanity Fair’s Gwyneth Hughes also points out that female commissioners, whatever channel they work on, are not necessarily more likely to read scripts written by women.

“An awful lot of the commissioning executives, I would say a majority of commissioning executives in television, in Britain, are female. [But] I have producer friends who say that they just are not into reading women’s writing,” Hughes tells RadioTimes.com.

“I wonder if they’re only interested in star writers, just as they’re interested in star actors, star directors. And that means established people, and that discriminates against people who are new and upcoming, and because of the historic imbalance, it therefore discriminates against women. Because it’s really hard for new writers, and most established writers are men.”

The BBC says it commissions an almost 50:50 gender split. However, Deborah Williams, executive director at the Creative Diversity Network, says that the statistic “requires examination in more detail”, as, she argues, it allows the BBC room to offer multiple pieces of work to the same female writers.

Phoebe Waller Bridge in Fleabag
Phoebe Waller Bridge in Fleabag

“Yes you can have a gender split, but actually, what are the numbers and the real percentage of that? If you only commission four pieces a year, and you say 50/50, that could mean you commission two men but one woman, two things.”

Is it considered too risky to green-light new talent?

In an increasingly crowded market, commissioners are under pressure to deliver hits — which means they often stick with established (and, Hughes says, frequently male) writers.

“The risks are so high from the commissioners’ point of view,” she explains. “The money they’re risking, and their own careers that they’re risking, by backing unheard-of people.”

Hughes’ sentiments chime with Rawcliffe’s admission that “to write an ITV drama, you need to be able to write eight episodes or an episode at pretty high budget, because we jump from the soaps to great big dramas.”

“Everything is sort of big. But that doesn’t mean women shouldn’t be able to write it, I’m not saying that, I’m just saying that… a lot of the things we do are usually done by established writers, in truth.”

She explains that ITV has few “nursery” slots. “If you’re at the BBC, you’ve got BBC3 dramas that are slightly lower tariff. I’m thinking of things like Clique, where new writers can get their first break or their first opportunity, and we don’t have loads of those opportunities.”

The lack of ‘lower tariff’ shows means that “talent is evenly distributed but opportunity isn’t” and, Rawcliffe adds, the pools from which channels recruit are too narrow. “Sometimes I think in this industry we fish from puddles rather than oceans and we’ve got to get better at looking further”.

The BBC Writersroom’s Edyvean agrees that there used to be far more episodic shows “where writers could hone their craft and broaden their experience”.

“There are now very few, and I think that is difficult for all writers,” she says.

But the Creative Diversity Network’s Deborah Williams argues that good commissioners should be in a position to take a leap of faith.

“There are lots of dud shows,” she says, “but that’s what television is about. It’s about going with something and it may work, it may not work, but you learn from if it doesn’t work

“And the narrative around diversity and gender and all of this in particular, is, ‘Oh well, we can’t do it because it’s too much of a risk’. It’s only too much of a risk if your entire portfolio is full of duds. If you’ve got a good portfolio, it’s not a risk. Genuinely isn’t.”

What opportunities are there for women writers?

If the real issue is that the gender split amongst ‘established’ screenwriters is skewed, how can it be fixed?

To do so, the industry needs more recognisable female writers working in TV, and that means increasing opportunities to promote and nurture up-and-comers.

Channel 4 runs its annual 4Screenwriting scheme for promising talent, while BBC Writersroom works across the BBC’s various scripted departments – including drama, comedy and CBBC – and helps find and develop new writers.

“It’s key to our work that we bring in talent from a wide-range of communities and are always conscious of developing less-represented voices,” Anne Edyvean, Head of BBC Writersroom, tells RadioTimes.com.

Asked about the gender gap within the industry, Edyvean says: “With regard to the numbers of writers who have achieved paid work for the BBC through Writersroom over the last 18 months, the balance between male and female writers is even.”

ITV, meanwhile, runs a workshop programme called Original Voices, which, Rawcliffe explains, “is about getting more people from a BAME background, because we know they’re underrepresented”.

We also support the Red Planet Prize, which is for new writers and new scripts,” Rawcliffe adds, “and we work with the National Theatre — they connect us to their up-and-coming writers, and we use that as a way of getting a pipeline of writers coming through.”

And earlier in October, ITV launched a new scheme, Comedy 50:50, led by Saskia Schuster, ITV’s controller of comedy, in an effort to address the gender imbalance in comedy — starting with writers.

It’s worth noting that, apart from Comedy 50:50, none of the broadcasters’ schemes are tailored towards closing the gender gap in screenwriting.

Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley
Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley

Soaps are good stomping grounds for up-and-coming screenwriters — Sally Wainwright, best known for Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax, started out as a writer on Coronation Street, and Sarah Phelps, the BBC’s go-to Agatha Christie adapter, cut her teeth on EastEnders. 

But it also seems that a fall in episodic shows, and a lack of ‘middle-way’ series — pitched somewhere between soaps and big-budget dramas — mean that there aren’t enough opportunities for screenwriters to gain experience and progress to that ‘established’ circle.

And the chance for new writers to prove themselves is exactly what’s needed to help mitigate the perceived risks for commissioners.

Should channels have gender targets?

Establishing targets, or quotas (like targets, but mandatory rather than aspirational) is a thorny issue, but they can prove effective. So, is some kind of gender target or quota something broadcasters would consider?

In 2016, the BBC’s Diversity and Inclusion Strategy set the target of a 50/50 gender split across all roles at the BBC by 2020 across all genres.

“The BBC’s strategy to increase diversity is based around targets not quotas,” says the BBC’s Ogungbesan.

“To achieve the long-term, embedded changes we want to see, diversity needs to be something we all think about, discuss and work to support – it can’t be a ‘bolt on’ or a job for just a few of us, or one person in a team or on a set.

Since the BBC is also funded by licence-fee payers, Ogungbesan adds that his role is to ensure the channel “looks like them” and that “programmes and services… reflect and represent the UK”.

Asked whether ITV would consider implementing a target, Rawcliffe says: “It’s a weird one because I think for me, it’s sort of obvious what your target is. Your target is that you would hope to have roughly 50/50.

“So, when you’re not achieving that you know you have to work harder. So, I think it’s quite obvious for us to know what our aim should be.”

Is more change coming?

Anyone who’s been paying attention to the evolving TV landscape will recognise that broadcasters like the BBC and ITV no longer have a monopoly on our viewing time. Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime — not to mention the concept of ‘bingeing’ an entire series — have revolutionised TV and the way we watch it.

And for UK-based writers, the rise of online content creators means there are more shows to work on, in addition to opportunities like writersrooms (commonplace in the States) which involve a group of screenwriters all working together on ideas and scripts for a show – a useful training ground for new talent.

The gender breakdown of these writersrooms is not made public by either Netflix or Amazon; they might have an equal split, but they could also be skewed towards male writers. As for who decides on programming, Amazon Studios have a 50:50 gender split in their 10-strong team of global commissioners with European Originals headed up by London-based Georgia Brown. Netflix were unable to provide us with their commissioning team’s line-up at the time of writing.

There’s another side to the online TV revolution. Streaming services have started to make clear their intention to land established female talent, with Netflix reaching into its deep pockets to lure Shonda Rhimes from American network ABC, where she created Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and more. Meanwhile, Amazon Studios have signed a first-look deal with Catastrophe creator Sharon Horgan and last summer announced their first comedy collaboration.

But it’s still unclear what the long-term effects of streamers will be for the TV industry — and whether or not they’re a positive force for diversity. If wealthy companies like Netflix poach prolific female voices, will that make terrestrial television less diverse — or will it leave a gap that major channels will move to plug, taking chances on promising young female voices keen to make their mark on the TV landscape?

“The competition now for talent is really ferocious,” ITV’s Rawcliffe says.

Advertisement

“It is a competitive market to get the best ideas, but it’s also a competitive market for audiences because [they] have so many more choices. And if we feel that we’re out of touch with the nation in terms of who they are, I think that’s really dangerous for us.”

What should be done to improve the proportion of female screenwriters working in television? Share your thoughts with us on social media using the hashtag #WomensWords. 

women's-words-logo