The film industry in the United Kingdom has come a long way in creating more opportunities for women in roles both on and off-screen. In December 2021, female directors were at the forefront of the London Critic’s Film Awards, with three of them having their films come out on top. With the official announcement for the Academy Award nominations just around the corner, there will hopefully be more.
However, there is still a major gap that is visible in the roles that men and women undertake. In the past 10 years, men have covered approximately 69% of credit crew roles while women have only undertaken 31%.
Women also continue to face the issue of being placed into certain boxes, only hired trusted to do specific roles, work to support the men on set, or simply to just fill in a “diversity” requirement by the company.
So where exactly does the problem lie and what can be done to change it?
The British Film Institute (BFI)
The British Film Institute, a charitable organisation in the UK film-making industry, has been dedicated to increasing opportunities for under-represented groups under the Group’s diversity standards through on and off-screen representation as well as team and leadership roles.
Mia Bays, the recently appointed director of the BFI Film Fund, is also working towards increasing more job opportunities for women in film.
Some areas she is specifically looking at is creating a broader intersectional range of women and creating a work/life balance for mothers or women with any caring responsibilities in their personal life.
“We also have to be mindful that a truly inclusive industry is complex – having 50% of women across all roles would obviously be fantastic, but if they were all straight, white, non-disabled women the industry would be far from representative,” she says.
“Which is to say, we cannot just focus on one area, and must ensure the industry is open and long-standing barriers to people of colour, disabled people, people from all backgrounds and people of all genders are broken down.”
The BFI has also released a free interactive web application, BFI Filmography, created by the organisation to share open data on film features, cast, and crew from the beginning of UK film history till now. The web tool particularly highlights the different roles that women and men have undertaken in these films.
The difference in key roles and genres based on Gender
Looking at the past 10 years (2011-2022) across the UK film industry roles, female crew members made up only about 30% of the production side while male crew members made approximately 70%.
Specifically across the sound and photography departments, women only make up around 8% of directors of photography and 5% of sound leads. It’s more common for them to take leadership positions in other roles like costume design or casting.
Florie-Anne Virgile, a TV producer and CEO of Myth-To Measure, a London-based multimedia storytelling agency, has seen this happen across her industry on several occasions because there is a common issue of women being stereotyped to only do certain tasks.
“Many male directors will hire female writers or journalists to conduct the interviews and research for them because they think women are 'good for that'. However, when a woman wants to be a DOP it is a lot harder for them because they think women are 'not good for that',” she says.
Along with being stereotyped for certain key roles, women will also sometimes experience being pushed into the lighter genres like romance rather than be trusted in working in more serious topics like action or war documentaries.
Approximately 26% of the crew members across action films in the past 10 years have been women compared to the almost 34% that work across romance films.
Diversity with hiring women in the industry
As important as it is to talk about the role of women in the UK film industry as a whole, it is also worth looking at the backgrounds of the women being hired and trying to increase representation in that area as well.
According to the BFI Filmography data, the top 20 highest-credited women across directing, production, editor, and screenwriter roles are all approximately over the age of 50. Over 90% of all these women are also white and publicly identify as straight women.
Zeb Achonu, a documentary and short film and TV editor, says that it is especially important to increase inclusivity for freelancers. The hiring process often depends on the circle they’re part of and they have to rely on connections to break into the industry.
“Our industry will benefit from recognising different voices and experience in order to gain the full benefits of mentoring and shadowing,” she says. “It takes trust, time, and money, to have these people at higher levels in the industry to be willing to sit down to listen and learn from one another.”
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on female film crew members
Another reason for increased awareness of gender equality in the film industry is the effect that the COVID-19 pandemic has now had on many women filmmakers.
According to a US research released in January by a university in San Diego, the numbers of female directors in the highest-grossing films of 2021 have even dropped by 1% compared to the numbers in early 2020.
Many women with children are finding themselves having to quit working because they are unable to find anyone to take care of their children. The film industry can often be harsh and it will often be very unlikely for them to receive any second chances if they resort to last-minute cancellations.
As a mother of three herself, Achonu believes that this is a massive obstacle in the industry for mothers and that they need to have proper support. Making the right efforts like changing schedules around so they are able to balance work and family life, allowing mothers to take their children with them to work, and so on.
“The help comes from having a network to be able to discuss these things and to rely on them for support, connections, and job opportunities,” she says.
“Men can help by changing the narrative and speaking up in the same way that women do. It’s everyone having those conversations and doing their part in making a change.”
So what happens next?
Seeking representation at an educational level
It’s important at a young age for women to see proper representation in the film industry for themselves in order to feel encouraged to pursue it as they get older.
MetFilm School in the UK is one university that is actively trying to create change in this area by creating a number of initiatives to raise awareness and engage students in these conversations.
“We have increased our female tutors in particular in areas such as directing and post production to ensure female students have role models,” says Rachel Wood, the Deputy School director at MetFilm school. “Our Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Committee has led on a number of initiatives including Inclusion Training fo students and staff and an Inclusive Language Guide to move away from outdated terms such as ‘cameraman’ and ‘script girl’.”
Wood also says that there needs to be more budget being given to female filmmakers, something that the BFI is currently undertaking by committing to a 50/50 gender target in their commissions.
“Women should be directing bigger budget films, they tend to still work in the independent sector where budgets are lower and the risk is lower,” she adds.
Alix Guichard, a filmmaker and graduate of Southhampton University, has chosen to use the knowledge she gained in her course to teach young primary and secondary school students all about filmmaking.
This is something that Guichard did not experience in her own school growing up or even at the university level to have strong female representation in the film industry.
“Sometimes I work in an all-girls school, they feel more confident seeing me as a woman working in the industry which makes me proud of the small achievements I’m making, “ she says.
She says that it is equally important in her job to encourage young women to pursue careers in the technical side of film production since it is often seen as a “man’s job” and fewer women are likely to feel encouraged by it.
“I think there’s something about holding a camera that’s seen as a physical job so the stereotype is that men are more capable of doing it. Maybe it is scary for women in general to put themselves out there and say that they can hold a camera as well. Yeah it is heavy but if you love it then you do it. I think there is definitely an imbalance with girls being less technical,” she says.
Building supportive networks for women in film
Support networks for women working across the film industry are important to continue raising awareness on the gender inequality issue and for leading women towards better opportunities that can advance their careers. Virgile is someone who has built her own network of women throughout her career and hired some who may not find equal opportunities elsewhere.
“My position as a CEO is trying to give more opportunities for women. Even though I do think things are a lot better in the UK and changing, I still see that women do not have equal access to opportunities,” Virgile says.
While it’s true that women do work better with other women, she warns against the idea of encouraging all-female crews since it enables the mentality of separating both genders rather than treating them equally.
Men and women do have completely different qualities and yes, sometimes there are roles that the majority of the time men are only capable of doing while women may be better at something else.
However, this does not mean that they are not equal or that they should not be treated as equal.
“Equal does not mean identical, men and women are different to be fair. But we need to take account that when we work together, that the women have abilities that are just as strong as theirs,” Virgile says. “We need men to acknowledge that they need women to function and to do the job better.”
Breaking free from stereotypes
Women can also sometimes experience being hired or not based on the ways that they look or the background they are coming from especially in the more exclusive areas of filmmaking like photography or sound.
Nicole Russin-McFarland, a film score composer and director based in the UK, has mentioned that she experienced several cases of stereotyping when it comes to breaking into a music composer role.
“You have to come from the right posh music educational background with the degree from the right university, apprenticing for the right studio composers or you are told you will never make it,” she says.
“One more thing: you have to look the right way. Generally, this visual demand of looking the right way goes beyond women: plus size men, queer men who don’t look 'queer', women who are not skeletal, women choosing to smile, so on.”
In an ideal future for women in the filmmaking industry, young women would be more encouraged to take leaps of faith and to be more opportunistic rather than always having to compromise and work twice as hard to prove themselves.
As Virgile says, “Remember that when you are opposite to man for the same job, he will not hesitate to say yes while you are questioning yourself but you should just go for it and work hard to prove yourself.”