My quotes in Mathilda Gregory’s article in The Guardian on the lack of women writing fantasy television were sadly cut. So here is what I wrote in response to the following questions that she asked me.
• Are there too few female writers in fantasy tv?
• If yes, why is this? Are producers not using enough women or are there not enough women working in the area to use. Should more women come forward? Should producers try harder to find them? Or something else?
• Does it matter? If the lack of women is a problem should something be done about it or not? And, if something should be done, what?
Does this matter?
Yes, of course it matters.
Firstly, it matters because we are talking about people’s livelihoods and careers. Women want to make a living from writing too. But there is a lack of access to some of the most high-profile writing jobs in the business. This isn’t just about fantasy television. Name five male television playwrights. Now name five female television playwrights. Stuck yet?
Secondly, diversity is good. If we draw from a wider, more varied pool of voices, we hear more about the world. We do not live in an echo chamber. We are challenged. This is not simply about ‘women’, of course. This is about representing as fully as possible our busy, diverse, chattering country. (Danny Boyle got this: “The isle is full of noises.”) More importantly, the literature of the oppressed tells us that to be systematically denied the opportunity to express one’s experience is a terrible, painful hurt. Why risk hurting people in this way?
Why does this happen?
I do not believe for a second that there is conscious discrimination. So why, despite good will and good people, do these inequalities persist?
This is clearly not limited to the production of fantasy television and seems to be a wider problem that broadcasting as a whole needs to address. Look at the debates about the lack of women comedians on panel shows such as Mock the Week and QI. The response from the Mock the Week production team was lamentable. (QI at least managed to find some women comedians to book.) There are other problems related to the absence of older women broadcasters on our screens, and also the lack of women broadcasters in local and national radio (e.g. the Today programme).
Often, when these issues are raised, there is a defensive reaction on the part of decision-makers in the industry. These decision-makers need to understand that when discussions about disparity and inequality arise, this is not an accusation of personal bigotry. It is about addressing structural inequalities in organisations rather than scapegoating individuals.
We do not, thank God, have the organised criminality of the 1970s and 1980s. Gone, I sincerely hope, are the days when a woman working in television would be groped whilst broadcasting. Feminism and its allied movements have worked hard to institutionalise mechanisms to prevent this happening.
Culturally, we are light years from that grotesque world. But this brings the danger of complacency. If we believe that we live in a world in which the odds are not stacked against women and other minority groups, then we are conning ourselves. It is not sufficient that each of us, individually and personally, is not sexist or racist or homophobic or classist. It is not sufficient because the world in which we live perpetuates these inequalities. Therefore we each have a choice: to ignore these inequalities or to make it part of our work in this world to address them and prevent their transmission to a new generation.
Is it really so hard to look down your list of writers or directors or announcers or contributors and say, “Hey, something seems to be missing here! Perhaps we can do something about that!”
The challenge for this generation of creators and decision-makers in broadcasting and the arts is what they want to do with the legacy left by previous generations. They do not have such a clearly-defined battle to fight, but they still have choices to make. Will they push on to greater creative liberty and opportunity for expression for all? Or will they let that good work atrophy?
What can be done?
Organisational change can only come from those with the power to institute such change. Commissioners and decision-makers need to commit to diversity as both creative and organisational challenge.
1. Firstly, notice the problem. Are you commissioning from a diverse pool of talent? If not, admit to this weakness and commit to dealing with it.
2. Understand why your current commissioning practices are failing when it comes to diversity. Where do you currently commission from? Are you relying on a small pool of talent? Has this group become overly reliant on informal networking and is therefore impossible for a new writer to break into? Production pressures make it easy to fall back on tried and tested writers. But having a larger pool of talent available is a less risky strategy all round.
3. Be imaginative in how you source new talent. Women by far outnumber men on creative writing courses at universities. How effective is your organisation in talent-spotting from such places? You could offer short placements for postgraduate students to shadow writing teams. Or make contact with university staff and discuss what you would like to see students from these courses offering you. Universities welcome industry links.
Dr Una McCormack is lecturer in creative writing at Anglia Ruskin University, where she teaches on the MA in creative writing. She has a PhD in sociology from the University of Surrey and has, for many years, taught organisational theory at the University of Cambridge. She also writes Star Trek and Doctor Who novels, amongst other things.