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A Report from the Diversify Summit

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by Kate Wilson
November 14, 2013 1:00 PM
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Elizabeth Karlsen and Sally El Hosaini Broadcast Magazine website

Screen International and Broadcast hosted a diversity summit at the BAFTA headquarters yesterday, Diversify - Improving Diversity in Film and TV. The event was sold out and attendees were buzzing with ideas to share, proposals to present and criticisms to levy, cramming into the auditorium to grasp the opportunity to be heard.  The day was long and the programme was filled with panel discussions on topics including "On-Screen Portrayal", "Flight of the Black Actor", "Are the Film and TV Industries a Closed Shop?" and "Women in Film and TV".  The latter two discussions generated the most enthused and passionate debate about women of the day.

Baroness Oona King opened the programme with an observation about Friday night TV, a luxury she looks forward to through the week. When she tuned in last Friday night she watched four shows over the course of almost three hours and noted that there were no women to be seen, none whatsoever.  She was furious and was about to take pen to paper to write a letter of complaint when she stopped to consider to whom she should write.  As the Chairwoman of the UK's Creative Diversity Network, she quickly realised that she should write to herself - she was the top government appointee assigned to creative diversity and on-screen representation of minority groups -- and she was failing in her task.  Kate O'Connor, Creative Skillset's Executive Director, talked convincingly about the significant steps the training organisation is taking to remedy the absence of women on Friday night telly and, more generally, the under-representation of women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities in film and on TV.

A rather humbled Baroness King continued to Chair the day's first discussion, "Are the Film and TV Industries a Closed Shop?" The panel quickly arrived at the answer - a resounding yes - but struggled to find a solution. The vast majority of the conversation was focused on new entrants and quota schemes.  Two proposals were discussed (1) Should bonuses for senior managers be linked to diversity within their staff? And (2) should public sector funding be conditional upon evidence of diversity within the ranks? The panelists were receptive to these ideas and many claimed to have already undertaken the first proposal, albeit in a personal rather than organisational capacity.  Aaqil Ahmed, the BBC's head of religion and ethics, insisted that about 10% of senior managers take it upon themselves to promote and reward diversity in their teams.  Although this is admirable, the implementation of a strong policy with financial penalties/incentives for the whole of the organisation, in this case the BBC, would quickly convert the remaining 90%.

Given that the audience were all adults, the panel was criticised for restricting their thinking to entry level postions and those for young people.  There are huge numbers of skilled, experienced women and people of color working in film and TV who find themselves hitting the glass ceiling again and again during their mid-career.  Many do not progress, and leave the industry in a search for greener pastures, and women often feel undervalued and unsupported when they endeavour to return to work after maternity leave.

The "Women In Film and TV" panel carried this idea forward, talking at length about the importance of childcare to facilitate the retention of female senior staff with families.  The all-female panel was chaired by Number 9 Films and producer Elizabeth Karlsen and included Dr Bettany Hughes (historian and broadcaster), Sally El Hosaini (writer/director of My Brother the Devil), Syeda Irtizaali (commissioning editor of entertainment at Channel 4), and Lis Howell (director of Broadcasting at City University London).  Dr Hughes opened the discussion with some facts reminding us that the last example of gender parity in society was 3,500 years ago in the Mediterranean civilisations, and that only 0.5% of our written history is attributed to women despite an average of 51% of the world's population being female.

Again, there was no denying that women were underrepresented on/in film and a number of familiar, unhappy statistics were raised including the fact that 92.2% of films are directed by men. More interestingly, when a man writes a script, there are 8 male characters for every three women characters, while when a woman writes a script, there are 5 male characters for every female character.  The question of blame and responsibility was considered and the idea of quotas was heavily debated. Syeda Irtizaali warned against the use of quantitative rather than qualitative analysis in regards to women's roles, citing Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines video as an example where there are 20 female roles compared to the 2 male roles, which would be a successful feminist venture if we only consider quantitative representation. The recent bold decisions by the governments of Sweden and France to only subsidise and endorse films that meet specifications for gender parity (both on and off-screen) were discussed and applauded, though there was no suggestion that such schemes would be advanced by the UK's government or, indeed, fostered by its industry.

Director Sally El Hosaini spoke candidly of her reticence to participate in diversity-themed days and women's panels, citing numerous examples of times she had listened, spoken and advocated for women's opportunities and the very minimal progress that had come as a result of her efforts.  A director, she feels, should follow Virginia Woolf's model for the writer and be androgynous. Although El Housaini can apply the androgyny model to her work as a director, she and the panel recognised that they were swimming against a very strong current of stereotyping and discrimination against women in the film and TV industries.

The day ended with a drinks reception and the tone was very positive, perhaps even celebratory, with a sense that there may be some concrete progress that comes of this exciting, well-attended day.  However, Bend It Like Beckham director Gurinda Chadha did not leave feeling so positive, tweeting "I feel totally depressed after the Diversify conference organised by Screen. What was the point?  Need to have accountability."  Indeed, the question of accountability remained largely unanswered and, predictably, those industry leaders in a position to assert change became defensive, shirked away from the more difficult questions and opted out of the networking drinks reception entirely.

Certainly and at the very least, it was rewarding to be in a room dominated by minorities, where women had the stronger voice and the last word.  And hopefully, provided that those who were inspired by yesterday's summit act on their impulses and remain steadfast in their resolve to achieve equality for women and minority workers, "Diversify" will be the harbinger of more opportunities, access and career-long support in film and television. 

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