The Women Behind ERA 50:50 on The Industry and Reframing the Discussion

We sat down with the ERA 50:50 campaign’s Polly Kemp, Deirdre Mullins, Emily Francis and Karin Paynter in light of International Women’s Day, to examine where the industry is at, their ideas for making positive changes, and the realities of being a performer today.

By Christina Care

Certainly, in my career, I had my expectations managed from drama school – that it would be harder for me. When I went out in the world, I saw very clearly the predominance of male-led narratives... Our industry is definitely predicated on the currency and importance of an actor.
Polly Kemp

The ERA 50:50 event

Thank you so much for your time Polly, Karin, Emily and Deirdre! I wanted to start with the origins of ERA as an idea, which your site says was born in 2015 as a result of the Geena Davis Institute report on the number of actors vs actresses represented in film (2:1 at the time of its publication). But how did your experiences as actresses inform the creation of ERA?

Polly: Certainly, it has informed us. I was conscious there was a date on my relevance – that work would one day disappear. I had my expectations managed from drama school – that it would be harder for me. As I went out in the world of work, I saw very clearly the predominance of male-led work and narratives. As I got older, I noticed that my contemporaries – guys of all shapes and sizes, grey hair, wrinkly faces bobbed along from one great supporting role to another. They are able to build a CV. But for women, as you age, work begins to peter out and instead of doing ten jobs in a year, you’re doing one or two. Our industry is definitely predicated on the currency of an actor. Looking at a dwindling CV makes it harder for women when it comes to the next job. The Geena Davis Institute Research made it clear that this was not just a feeling but a fact - 2 men for every 1 woman.

It put numbers to what you could feel was the case anyway…?

Polly: Yes, and you could take that to somebody as evidence. When actresses say, “There’s not many opportunities for me,” there’s the fear that you’re perceived as being a bit of a moaner… there’s a sense that it’s not that clear why you’re not getting the work. But when you’ve got hard data...!

Deirdre: There’s a particular pressure point when actresses take a break to have kids, they come back and they can’t get get a foothold in the industry again. They think they’re not working because they’ve had this insurmountable break, or they’re not good enough now and they lack confidence, but the real reason is there’s been a serious shrinkage of the number of parts for women that age. This grotesque ageism manifests in lots of different ways, for example, women are very often paired with guys who are so much older than them. I’m regularly, almost entirely, paired with guys who are 15-20 years older than me despite the fact that in the UK, in real life, the average age gap between a couple is 2-3 years. A third of couples are just 1 year apart. That should not be presented as the norm. So, while this is happening to me, my boyfriend who is also an actor and the same age as me, is being paired with girls who are 19, 22… it’s ridiculous. What it’s saying to our audiences is very undermining for women and it just doesn’t represent real life.

Looking at the list of solutions presented at the ERA 50:50 event on the 28th February, there are a lot of really practical things institutions and individuals can be doing. Obviously, this is a landmark time for the industry – Frances talking about inclusion riders the other night at the Oscars, for instance – but I wonder what you think about the disparity between the Meryls, those really at the top, and the average jobbing actress….

Polly: Well the inclusivity clause is very much for those at the top – that puts it amongst a very small group of people, who can afford to say, “Well, you either be inclusive or I walk away.” However as a notion – an aspiration – this plants the seed, it creates an idea that it could be different and that trickles down and makes for change in the industry. There’s only been 5 women ever nominated for Best Director, and only one has won in the whole history of the Oscars. There’s been only 5 women ever nominated for Best Director, and only one has won in the whole history of the Oscars. There was one female DOP, is she the first…?

It’s not at all about shutting down male stories. It’s about making room for more female stories and more diversity generally.
Emily Francis

Yes, the first female to ever be nominated for Best Cinematography…

Polly: In 2018, it’s an extraordinary concept that we are still talking about ‘firsts’ for women.

Karin:  But I think as a viewer you’re often not even conscious of the lack of women on screen. It wasn’t until I started getting involved in this campaign that I started watching television more mindfully and realising how skewed the gender balance really is and began to think about the potential implications it might be having on society and particularly our children.

Deirdre: Yes, there’s an unconscious bias. We’re not suggesting there’s a conspiracy of nasty, misogynist commissioner men at the top. Really, it’s just thoughtlessness. We hire people who are like us. So, I’m more likely to hire a white woman in her 30s. And of course, a posh white bloke in his 60s is naturally going to pick stories which revolve around people like him. ERA 50:50 is really about asking people to consciously look at what they are doing.

Polly: What Frances McDormand is doing, what we’re doing, what Act for Change are doing, is making the unconscious conscious and then you start to have a virtuous cycle – if you can force organisations to implement even incremental increases within the various areas over a period of time, you can begin to see massive change.

Deirdre: And it’s not that hard – it’s not an impossibly epic battle! Meaningful change could start tomorrow.

I wonder if you have a better answer than I do to the objection, “What if I just want to see stories about men?” Or the objections to the Oscars along the lines of “I just want to hear about the talent, not politics.”

Emily: It’s not at all about shutting down male stories. It’s about making room for more female stories and more diversity generally. It’s not about making sure men are quiet, it’s about giving women a voice…

Deirdre: And a diversity of women. We want women of all shapes and sizes, backgrounds and ages telling our stories. Frances McDormand is a wonderful example of audiences hunger for content with older women. She’s glorious - she’s unashamed of her age, unashamed of her face – she hasn’t changed it to look younger than she is. Because we’re representing society – that’s what’s important about this. It’s showing children that they can be anything they want to be when they grow up. That they will grow old, and there’s nothing wrong with that - they’ll still have an exciting and valuable place in our culture.

In other industries we have the concept of ‘quotas’, which isn’t necessarily a very well-liked term, but does have good supporting evidence in Scandinavia…

Deirdre: The Swedish Film Institute’s Anna Serner decided as CEO to ensure 50:50 funding. And she did everything in her power to create mentorship schemes, to help preference great scripts from females that came through, and so in a very small space of time she went from zero to hero in terms of women filmmakers. They are doing fantastically well – they’ve had Academy Award nominations…

Emily: It’s not just the talent coming in, it’s about the dynamic, too.

Deirdre: And ultimately you want to serve your audiences, who are diverse. We’re just trying to help you make more money by appealing to more people!

Polly: Anything that benefits from the public purse should be required to have a 50% gender balance – it’s the right thing to do. And actually, what we’re seeing is the economic success at the box office of films like Black Panther and Wonder Woman. And the success of TV shows like The Handmaid’s Tale, Big Little Lies, show that it’s not a gamble to have female lead or diverse narratives.

Gender statistics of cast and crew on British films, from the BFI

Just shifting track for a second: you’ve just had this event, which was really successful. Can you talk about the process of making this campaign happen – any challenges with it?

Karin: We started off just by having meetings with five or six of us coming along every week. Polly and Lizzie took time to fine tune our campaign down to a series of very key messages which has held us in good stead throughout the last two years. During that time I came on board to bring the campaign to life visually and the momentum has been building ever since.

Polly: From the first meeting, we had Olivia Colman and Denise Gough. Denise Gough was the first one to wear our t-shirt to the Critics' Choice Movie Awards and then…

Karin:  At the BAFTA Awards 2017, we had an opportunity to create a campaign badge that would be worn by our supporters, so we quickly designed and delivered the ERA 50:50 badge and were thrilled that it was worn by James Nesbitt to present the award for Best Actress.

Deirdre: We were so pleased, not only because he used his platform to speak about us, but because a man talking about the issue demonstrates a really important point - that it’s all of society’s problem, not just women’s. Another key moment in our campaign was as a result of our conversations with the National Theatre. They had already committed to 50% living female writers and directors but they hadn’t committed to equal numbers of actresses and actors - when they publicly committed to equality, that was a big result for us. That meant that the biggest theatre in the country saw it as fundamentally important. From there we watched many other theatres come out of the woodwork and say, “we’re going to do it too”. Michelle Terry, for example, was a member of ERA 50:50 and she went on the become the Artistic Director of The Globe and make a similar commitment. So, theatre-wise it’s been a really successful process and one that’s on-going. In terms of screen, Spotlight were really important on our next leg of the journey, the BAFTA briefing event.

Emily: What we were keen to do was to invite people who we didn’t have on side. Not just people who were for the cause – gatekeepers, influencers and those in positions of power, who may not even have been aware that there was a problem. We really focused in on screen, TV and film. Because theatres were, in a sense, ahead of the game. The flagship theatres were already making those choices off their own backs.

Deirdre: But just to say, there are still those heading off some of the biggest theatres who are notable exceptions, who absolutely refuse to recognise the need for equality or their responsibility for it. So, it’s not a given. There’s generally good vibes but there are still people who think that this is nonsense.

Polly: So there’s industry focused work and then there’s the push on policy – we’ve had conversations with Kevin Brennan, Tracy Brabin, we’ve had exchanges with Tom Watson’s office… we are currently making an approach to the Women and Equalities Committee. We are working with TimesUp over here in the UK and are one of forces behind their 50:50 by 2020 pillar of work. They have a wider reach in terms of profile and people within our industry but hopefully together we can work on policies around gender balance and inclusivity. Start with equality, then you can properly reflect diversity and inclusion.

Emily: So much falls out of equality.

Deirdre: A lot of these institutions do supposedly fulfil qualifying criteria for funding – but then when it comes to actual numbers, when we count the actual results of male and female creatives they’ve employed... it looks like nobody has even considered it.

We have evolved from having a couple of ideas to something more tangible. We will continue to offer up solutions.
Polly Kemp

That’s the benefit of having a clear number - there’s really no way around it.

Deirdre: What we’re really encouraging people to do is to count, because often people are like ‘Oh I don’t have any problem – I don’t have any unconscious bias!’ Some of the most well-presented theatres are shocked when we put their numbers in front of them.

How did you get to the list of ideas/changes you presented the other night?

Karin: That was a long process!

Deirdre: You’re trying to wrangle solutions for such a huge range of problems.

Polly: I think it’s important to mention we are not from the world of politics – we have no campaign manager, we have only our own experience and sense of true north. So, for us it has been a steep learning curve. We have evolved from having a couple of ideas to something more tangible. We will continue to offer up solutions. They are set in stone for the time being but not definitive…

It will grow.

Polly: Exactly.

Emily: It was important to us to make the solutions practical, and like Polly’s saying, tangible – something that you could go away and put into action the next day. Like NEROPA. I think quite often that [complexity] gets in the way of making changes. We wanted it to be as easy as possible for people.

NEROPA is a great example – it’s really just about having the right conversation… 

Deirdre: Absolutely, and what it often comes down to as well is developing female writers - nurturing talent in the long-term. This was the constant excuse and frustration of commissioners, artistic directors and so on that we spoke to, that they can’t find female writers, as if they’re hiding…!

As a female writer myself, I think it is down to the systemic conditioning – you’re just taught quite quickly that you shouldn’t push yourself out there so much.

Emily: Yes, it’s unladylike. Absolutely.

Deirdre: Well, you’re conditioned, Christina – you’ve been watching telly for 20 years…

Polly: One argument is women writers present themselves less confidently than male writers, which affects programmers and commissioners confidence in their work regardless of actual ability. If that’s the case, it’s time for those employing writers to change their hiring processes. If you know women present themselves differently, then it’s up to you to change your process to accommodate years of conditioning. You shouldn’t be wanting female writers to suddenly be more confident if they don’t feel it, you change! The Writers’ Guild will be publishing their research soon - that’ll be very interesting!

Emily: The stats speak for themselves.

I’ve learned that in the end, people respect and want to work with people who have got an opinion of their own and who have a moral centre, a sense of self-worth and self-respect. There’s something powerful and exciting about that, and that’s what’s ultimately going to shine.
Deirdre Mullins

It’s International Women’s Day: what do you hope for women going forward? What can they do right now? When a young person is entering this industry, the power disparity is huge – what would you tell them to give them hope, or encourage them?

Deirdre: Make your own work.

Polly: Yeah, I would say make your own work, find your own voice, don’t be frightened by the perception of power. It’s shifting. Come and find organisations like us, because what we want to do is amplify new voices, do work for them. The Harvey Weinstein scandal became news because one woman spoke up and then it was like a domino effect. People are beginning to talk to each other. The Weinstein scandal did one good thing, it has helped us as a community to find our voice.

Emily: Seek out opportunity. There are lots of opportunities for young writers – be front-footed with that. Seek them out, submit your work, fight for your work. Advocate for change, talk about how important equality of opportunity is with your male friends as well as your female friends. Try and make your own ripples.

Deirdre: It’s also about sisterhood.

Quite a new concept too! Women having often been conditioned to compete against each other…

Deirdre: Exactly. 50% of producers are women, so there are powerful people in the industry who have not been helping - there are many who have - but it’s about conscious solidarity as well.

Polly: Let’s all talk to each other. Jessica Chastain happened to get into a conversation with Octavia Spencer about how much she was being paid and when they realised there was a huge disparity, Jessica Chastain went away and negotiated better money for her. I know that that’s at the top, but again, it’s the principle. If we are just a bit more transparent and stop being terrified…

Deirdre: When you enter this profession, you want to please everybody, there’s an expectation to just make yourself nice and happy for everybody, never argue, never complain! But I’ve learned that in the end, people respect and want to work with people who have got an opinion of their own and who have a moral centre, a sense of self-worth and self-respect. There’s something powerful and exciting about that, and that’s what’s ultimately going to shine.

Emily: And distinguish you. Because if everybody’s grinning inanely…

Deirdre: Who wants to watch that?

Very true!

Thank you so much to Polly, Karin, Emily and Deirdre for their time on this piece. Take a look at everything they are up to with the ERA 50:50 campaign on Twitter and on their website. And on that note: Happy International Women’s Day!