The week of International Women’s Day is an opportune moment to look at the role that past campaigns and trade unions have played in progress towards gender equality in the film and television industries, and what is still to be done.
Gender inequality in the film and television industries has come to dominate mainstream conversation in recent years. From the 2014 Sony email leak – which revealed that Jennifer Lawrence received a considerably lower rate of pay for her role in American Hustle than her male co-stars – to condemnation of Hollywood’s gender pay gap to the 2017 allegations of sexual assault and harassment against Harvey Weinstein, women have illuminated and challenged wage inequality, gender discrimination and the endemic nature of sexual harassment in the film and television industries through campaigns such as Time’s Up and the #MeToo movement.
In the British context, women have challenged the gender pay gap at the BBC. In January 2018, Carrie Gracie, BBC’s China editor, resigned because she could no longer ‘collude’ in wage discrimination, and in January 2020, Samira Ahmed won a landmark employment tribunal on equal pay against the BBC.
Since 1933, the British film and television industries have been represented by three iterations of the technicians’ union – the Association of Cine-Technicians (ACT) (1933–56), the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians (ACTT) (1956–91) and the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU) (1991–2017) (now BECTU Sector of Prospect). During the last nine decades, union activity on gender inequality has ebbed and flowed through periods of militancy and inertia. In the 1970s, women activists saw trade unions as ‘a place to fight for women’ (Sarah Boston, interview with author, 2016) within a political context informed by the intensification of global protest movements, an upsurge in rank-and-file industrial militancy in the British labour movement, and the emergence of the New Left and women’s liberation movement. In the film and television industries, external feminist allies acted as a catalyst for women’s union activism; for instance, the London Women’s Film Group, a feminist film collective established in 1972, played a significant role in the establishment of the ACTT’s Committee on Equality in 1973. At the ACTT’s 1973 Annual Conference, women activists called for an investigation into gender discrimination in the British film and television industries and the appointment of a female researcher to conduct this investigation. This was a significant turning point in the relationship between women and the ACTT because it was the first time women’s demands challenged the union structure.
In 1975, the ACTT’s Committee on Equality published the results of this investigation – a groundbreaking report on gender discrimination in the workplace, Patterns of Discrimination against Women in the Film and Television Industries, which illuminated widespread gender inequality in the film and television industries, quantified women’s experiences of discrimination, analysed the structures which facilitated this discrimination and provided an extensive list of recommendations for collective bargaining. The Patterns report concluded that women workers were confined to ‘sexual “ghettoes”’ within the British film and television industries, with women completely absent from half of over 150 grades represented by ACTT agreements, while 60 per cent of women were concentrated in three grades: production secretary, continuity supervisor and ITV production assistant. Among the significant causes of discrimination identified by the investigation were the job structure of the industry, which confined women to dead-end jobs; the denial of employment rights and conditions to women workers by both the state and employers; and the lack of trade union representation and activity on discrimination. To challenge gender discrimination in both the industries and the union, the report called for a minimum of 26 weeks of paid maternity leave and four weeks of paternity leave; the provision of childcare facilities within the workplace and at national union meetings; quotas on training courses; the establishment of sub-committees for women workers on the shop floor; and the formalisation of the Committee on Equality’s position within the ACTT as an elected committee with official power within the union structure.
The significance of the report was widely recognised within the union and beyond. Women activists within the ACTT anticipated that the report’s findings and recommendations would provoke radical change in the union’s policies towards women workers. The report provided these women with concrete evidence of gender discrimination in both the industries and the union that could not be easily dismissed or disputed and would substantiate their future demands. At the ACTT’s 1975 Annual Conference, Patterns researcher Sarah Benton declared that the report marked ‘the beginning of the practical fight for women’s rights’. Within academic circles, Claire Johnston in her 1975 article in Screen article ‘Women in the Media Industries’ heralded the report as ‘by far the most comprehensive and informed to have been produced within the trade union movement so far’, while Anna Coote and Beatrix Campbell described it in their Sweet Freedom: The Struggle for Women’s Liberation (1982) as ‘a classic reference point for feminists and trade unionists’. However, women activists faced considerable barriers in the implementation of the report’s recommendations, including the limited engagement with the report among the ACTT’s rank-and-file, the hostility of male union officials towards the report’s demands, and the Committee on Equality’s detachment from the ACTT’s formal union structure. As a result, the Patterns report remained ‘regrettably up-to-date’ six years later in 1981.
To challenge gender inequality in the present-day film and television industries, it is important to understand the role trade unions have played in challenging and maintaining gender discrimination throughout their history. In looking to the past, we can identify barriers to achieving gender equality and learn valuable lessons from the successes of those who have come before us. As in the 1970s, we need to recognise trade unions as a site for collective action against gender inequality, as ‘a place to fight for women’ today.
Frances Galt completed her PhD on women and trade unions in the British film and television industries at De Montfort University in 2018. She has taught at Sheffield and De Montfort Universities and is currently a Teaching Associate at Newcastle University.
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Image credit: Warren K. Leffler via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)