Why are female screenwriters still not given the prime opportunities?

The average Brit will watch 22.3 hours of television a week, nearly one full day’s worth of TV. The average Brit will also watch 72 films a year which is, on average, more than one film a week. Between 2001 and 2016 just 18% of those television programmes were written by a woman, lessening to 14% for prime-time TV. In the film industry 79% of the films made had no women involved in the writing at all. It is no secret that screenwriting is a male-dominated industry, highlighted in recent times by speeches like that of Frances McDormand at the Oscars 2018, where she urged all women involved in the nominated films to stand up, raising awareness to the female talent in the room but also the lack of female representation. Why is this such a problem? Should it not just be the best TV made which gets to be aired? Yes, it should. But some of the best TV and films are being made by women and are not being given the chance to be seen.

President of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, Olivia Hetreed, has proposed that the lack of female representation in the screenwriting industry is as a result of the film industry’s aversion to risk. Hetreed has discussed how producers and funders tend to opt for a writer in their mid-career with considerable successes to their names. This bracket, however, does not include a large number of females due to the discrimination they so often face earlier on in their careers. As a result of a lack of opportunities, women struggle to achieve the same level of success by their mid-career compared to men.

There is undeniable change happening and that should not be ignored. In 2017 we had the first female Doctor, Underground and Orange Is The New Black which presented us with black protagonists, and online streaming services showing subtitled dramas from all across Europe and Asia. Yet, switch on your television for the prime-time 9pm slot and the vast majority of writers trusted with this time are men. Despite some change, this industry still faces huge problems where gender equality is concerned. We need to aim for a time when not only 11% of writers of the top 250 films of the year are women, a time when male executives are not saying to women “we already have a show written by a woman” and a time when women are worked with rather than against to fulfil their capabilities and produce captivating and intelligent content.

Women are so often limited by the ‘fear of the audience’. There is an evident, albeit subconscious belief, that the stories men have to offer have a limitless audience and that those of women target a niche and smaller audience. Women have access to a smaller pond of writing projects and genres. They are forced into writing continuing drama and children’s TV where they have a greater chance of being produced than in prime-time drama or comedy, both of which are riddled with male success. Referring back to Olivia Hetreed there is truth in her words “I think what it boils down to is that when we’re not representing women’s voices, we’re not going to see the stories of women.”

As momentum on gender equality picks up and is given increasing representation in the media, initiatives have started to be created supporting female screenwriters, notably the Radio Times’ #WomensWords campaign. #WomensWords offers a platform to showcase and promote talented female writers, be them upcoming or established, old or young. It is a place to celebrate the women who work hard to achieve success in an industry which at times works against them. The campaign also pushes for progress on this issue and delves into how to improve the situation for aspiring female screenwriters so that their work and talent does not get overlooked and gets the recognition it deserves. Women’s Words have released a wonderful collection of articles exploring the laughter, tears and joy that women’s writing brings.

Having watched some of the incredible shows and films written by women, it is clear that the audience lose out as much as the female writers when we deny them the opportunity to showcase their work.

Imogen Williams 


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