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Revealed: the shocking extent of gender inequality in the UK film industry

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From female movie stars speaking out about being paid less than their male co-stars, to the news that two major Hollywood studios are releasing no female-directed films at all in the next two years, gender inequality in the film industry is a perennial talking point.

But the focus has tended to be on Hollywood, with relatively little attention paid to the UK’s £4.6 billion film industry. Now the leading organisation of British film directors has called for decisive action, after a study revealed the shocking extent of gender inequality within the UK industry.

Directors UK are calling for half of all publicly funded films to be directed by women by 2020, after their study revealed just 11.5 per cent of UK films released in the decade between 2005 and 2014 were directed exclusively by women.

“It cannot be acceptable that in 2016 any industry with this level of inequality continues to go unchecked – not least the film industry that plays such an influential role in our economy, our society and our culture,” said Beryl Richards, the chair of Directors UK and of the Directors UK Gender Equality Group.

She added: “I thought by now there would be more women coming through, but at Directors UK the feeling is that [women directors] are becoming a species nearing extinction.”

Fish Tank

Fish Tank, directed by Andrea Arnold, won a BAFTA for its portrayal of a young British woman's life.

The study commissioned by Directors UK looked at 2,591 UK films released over ten years between 2005 and 2014. It found that UK films are six times more likely to be directed by a man, and that the percentage of films directed by women increased by only 0.6 per cent over the decade studied.

Women directors were found to make fewer films in their careers, and are far less likely to direct a second, third or fourth film.

They are also disproportionately underrepresented in certain genres, such as action, crime, horror and sci-fi, and in big-budget feature films. Only 3.3 per cent of films with a budget of more than £30 million are directed by women, suggesting that female directors are considered more of a financial gamble by film studio bosses.  

Crucially, the study proved that these discrepancies were not caused by women’s lack of interest, since over half of all film students and just under 50 per cent of new entrants into the film industry in the UK are women. Very few of these women, however, are getting the opportunity to go on and direct films. 

Sarah Gavron

Suffragette director Sarah Gavron (far left), pictured with Abi Morgan, Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep, has spoken out about the study's findings. Image: Getty

So what is behind the UK film industry’s gender inequality? Researchers discovered a deep-seated reliance on the stereotype of the male director, and that the short-term nature of many film projects discouraged the “long-term thinking” that might encourage producers to employ a female director. It also flagged up the problem of the lack of a regulatory body to monitor and enforce gender equality.

A lack of role models meant that women felt discouraged about their prospects as a director, maintaining the low number of women working in the role. This, in turn, reinforced the stereotype of directors as male, which meant that fewer women were hired to direct.

“It was only when I started seeing films directed by women that I felt I could dare to try to direct,” said Sarah Gavron, who directed Suffragette, Brick Lane and This Little Life. “Role models are key to developing and encouraging the next generation of film makers.”

Despite being the best-performing area of the film industry, public funding support for films directed by women has been cut by almost 50 per cent since 2008. As well as calling for 50 per cent of publicly funded UK films to be directed by women by 2020, Directors UK also suggested that films should have to fulfil certain “diversity” criteria (including gender) before qualifying for tax relief.

Many directors have pointed to Sweden as an example of how diversity targets can successfully eliminate aspects of inequality in the film industry. When she took over as CEO of the Swedish Film Institute in 2011, Anna Serner announced that Sweden would be the first country in the world to seek equal gender funding in all film productions. By 2014, 50 per cent of directors, 55 per cent of scriptwriters, and 65 per cent of producers making films in Sweden were female. 

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