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Fighting gender discrimination in acting


50:50 by 2018, discrimination, sexism, pay gap, actresses, theatre, filmA sad reality: in 2016 women still have to actively campaign for equality in the workplace.

Equal Representation for Actresses (ERA) is the latest gender equality campaign to be launched, similar to the well-known 50:50 Parliament campaign, in a bid to eradicate gender discrimination against women in acting.

Women’s Views on News (WVoN) spoke to actress Polly Kemp, who has been heavily involved from the outset, to find out more about the campaign and what it’s like for women working in the entertainment industry.

What is ERA 50:50 and why did you set it up?

ERA 50:50 or Equal Representation for Actresses, is a campaign started in response to a text sent out by my fellow campaigner, Elizabeth Berrington, after she read an article in The Guardian titled ‘Women are everywhere so why are we invisible on film?’.

Lizzie sent a text to her network of actress colleagues expressing her frustration that nearly 100 years since women’s suffrage we can still expect less work and less money than our male counterparts, and the response was incredible.

I had been feeling increasingly more frustrated about my career as I watched work opportunities disappearing from the age of 45, so when I received the text I responded saying that not only did I feel the same but that I would do something about it.

A lot of actresses feel nervous about putting their heads above the parapet because of the scarcity of work, but I thought ‘I have nothing to lose and everything to gain’ so we met and put together the beginnings of ERA 50:50.

What kind of reactions have you had since you started the campaign?

The response has been universally positive from everyone we have approached so far.

What are the campaign’s overall aims?

We are campaigning for 50:50 gender parity across all theatre programming in subsidised theatres as well as drama and comedy slates on all UK TV channels.

Have you had any first-hand experiences of sexism within the industry?

Regularly. It starts right from the very beginning when you apply for drama school – you’re told that there are less places for women than men and we have always just accepted it. When you do get a place you’re just pleased that you’re beating the odds.

There is a terrific woman on Twitter called Miss L and she tweets some depressingly hilarious casting breakdowns like this one:

‘Looking for females playing an age range of 18-28 and with a body size no larger than a size 12. Any height and ethnicity. Although nudity would be involved for some scenes (this would be full nudity but no front shots would be shown in the film) there would also be simulated sex scenes – this is to show the central male character is a hot-blooded male’.

Obviously I can’t attribute it to anyone as she posts anonymously but you get the gist – and this isn’t even that extreme!

In your opinion, what are the main reasons behind the gender imbalance in acting? Are they similar to those in other industries?

One of the main reasons for the gender imbalance is choice of material. In the big subsidised theatres dead men’s plays make up the majority of drama programming. In Shakespeare and other classical plays the opportunities for women are slim particularly amongst the secondary parts.

Of course there are a few great leading roles but not everyone is a leading actress, and women just don’t get the same variety of interesting supporting parts to help develop a career as men.

More new plays written by men are staged than those written by women, and men’s plays occupy the large spaces whilst women’s reside in smaller and less prestigious studio spaces.

Men write more parts for men, but interestingly women are much more fair and tend to write similar amounts of parts for men and women, so when women do get the chance to write and direct more women appear on stage and on screen.

On TV drama there are approximately 2.3 parts for men to every one woman’s part and that’s down to who and what’s being commissioned. Again the majority of drama and comedy is written, directed and produced by men.

I think it’s similar to other industries in the sense that if men predominantly occupy senior positions they tend to employ other men.

There are women in senior executive positions within TV/Film and Theatre but it seems like the critical decision makers are still men and their decisions go unchallenged.

As an industry we appear to have less oversight and accountability than any other industry so there are practices around the decisions about what gets made or put on that have gone unchallenged for years.

To what extent do you think women’s physical appearance plays a part in the gender imbalance in acting?

Appearance is very important for women in the acting industry. We have to conform to quite a narrow body type. Of course there are notable exceptions, however the pressure to be very slim and look a particular way is enormous, particularly in high impact TV and film.

And then of course we seemingly don’t exist after the age of 45 unless we’re a grandmother or carrying in a tray of biscuits. Compared to men we just fall of the scale in terms of opportunities.

Men can be in their 50s and 60s in dynamic roles however the age of the women cast to play their wives is generally much younger.

It’s heartbreaking to see women jumping through hoops to maintain their physical appearance in a way that men just don’t have to.

With men we see a range of ages, shapes and sizes being allowed to play interesting characters and in no way is their appearance relevant.

For women however, size, shape and age is critical and as we move out of our 30s it gets harder and harder to find work as parts for older women are far and few between.

Do you think it’s one of, if not the worst industry for women to work in?

Politics and engineering are probably worse in terms of percentage representation, however the particular issue for our industry is that a women can build a strong and varied CV through her 20s and 30s only to see her career plummet in her mid to late 40s and find herself falling off the fiscal cliff.

Between 40 and 59 men’s careers grow but over the same period women’s decline. It is so frustrating and unfair to have reached a point in your life when you think there may be more choices only to find yourself having to find other sources of income.

What are your thoughts on female actresses’ (e g Jennifer Lawrence) comments about the gender pay gap in Hollywood? Is this something you have experienced during your career?

I think all actresses no matter who they are should be given the same money for the same job and the more all actresses speak up about it the more transparency there will be.

As self-employed people in a precarious profession it feels as though employers have exploited the natural reticence of actors and actresses to talk about fees – fees often relate to perceived ‘value’.

Who wants to admit to being paid less, particularly if you feel that it means you are valued less?

I have been offered less money than actors younger and less experienced than myself for the same job only to find myself being told to either accept the fee or they’ll find someone else. It’s fairly common.

There are women at the top of our profession in the UK who are paid much more than anyone else and that is often cited as a reason for somehow excusing pay disparity elsewhere.

Do you agree with Emma Thompson’s claim that sexism and unpleasantness towards women in the acting industry is worse than ever? Have you noticed significant changes/a decline during your career?

I do agree that sexism and unpleasantness have gotten worse towards women in the acting industry.

It seems that women are required to take their clothes off more than ever on TV and film and are subjected to hideous scrutiny in some areas of the press who focus on their weight and appearance rather than their ability.

To be fair there can be a natural top down unpleasantness in this industry, in some quarters, to anyone perceived to be ‘less than’, man or woman.

However I do feel that in the last couple of decades feminism has lost ground in society as a whole.

The imbalance in acting starts early on – you only have to look at the statistics for female representation in children’s television to see that it’s much the same as adult TV, which suggests to young women that we’re just not as important as men from the start of their careers.

Who else is involved in ERA 50:50?

We are reaching out to other groups of women campaigning for equality within our industry. We’re currently sharing ideas with Directors UK and hoping to reach out and connect with Women in Journalism and The Writers Guild.

We’ve spoken to Anna Serner, CEO of The Swedish Film Institute, and she has given us some great advice. We’ve also met with Oona King who is currently a Diversity Executive at C4 and she was amazingly enthusiastic about what we’re doing and is helping us to put together a round table discussion.

What can people within the acting industry, other high-profile figures such as politicians, and the general public, do to help ERA 50:50 achieve, and maintain, its aims?

Entertainment is one of the most successful industries in this country and women working in this profitable section of the economy deserve no less rights and protections than their male colleagues, so this is definitely a matter for government action.

Everyone can go to our website and read our aims and objectives, sign up and if they fancy it buy one of our rather stylish T-shirts and wear it! Denise Gough wore our T-shirt when she accepted her Critics Circle Award for Best Performance and caused a real stir.

I think we need to keep this conversation going and raise public awareness of how they are being short changed in drama and comedy by being denied some really fabulous women’s voices.

We’re all missing out if half of the population’s stories are not being told.

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