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Why Are There So Few Women Directors?

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When the last person ranted at me there were so few women directing movies because they would rather stay home with their children, I thought I was going to scream. That has been the received wisdom for way too long and a new study commissioned by Directors UK puts that theory to bed nicely and tidily.

I was sick of pointing out the legions of women who dominate the hair and make up departments of film sets, or work as script supervisors or assistants to directors, many of them single mums struggling to do it all, and are often the first people to arrive and the last people to leave, long after the director swans in and out in a chauffeur driven car. The lack of women helming movies clearly has little to do with them wanting to stay at home. The reason there aren't more women directors has everything to do with gender bias, conscious or subconscious, and nothing to do with having kids.

The result of a year's work by Stephen Follows, and commissioned by Directors UK, the study shows that 50% of women leaving film courses are women but from thereon in opportunities for women diminish at every rung of the career ladder from 27% of short films being directed by women to 16% of low budget feature films to 13% of medium budget films to just 3% of films with a budget over £30m.

There are unique pressures on the hiring structure of a film production. It's a freelance industry, done on a project by project basis, unmonitored by any sort of HR policy. For an industry one thinks of as progressive and forward looking, it's surprisingly risk averse. The hiring pattern tends to be one of hiring people like the ones who have gone before and those people are overwhelmingly men.

For years I thought the reason I was finding it so hard to get a break into feature films (I was nearly 50 when I directed my first movie, despite having won a BAFTA and having multiple Emmy nominations for television work) was that perhaps I wasn't very good. But when I got to sit on a board with other women (the nature of the industry is so fractured that you often don't meet other directors) I started to see a pattern emerging - the problem wasn't unique to me - it was true for a lot of other women whose work I admired and respected. For anyone, male or female, to get to direct a feature film is really hard, but for the women on the board it just seemed so much harder.

Does it matter? Of course it does. Film is hugely influential and reflects our world back at us. Fewer films directed by women tends to mean fewer films with strong female leads. Women's role as those who bring life into the world might have an impact inasmuch as our films often deal more thoughtfully with violence and its consequences. Films directed by women have a different make up of extras too - more women seated round boardroom tables, more women having meaningful conversations rather than crying when things get hard, even films that are just more fun.

The Directors UK report, 'Cut Out Of The Picture', calls for 50% of films to be directed by women by 2020. Bring it on. Bring on more films like Mama Mia, like The Piano, like Zero Dark Thirty, like Lost in Translation. The female voice in cinema has been silenced for far too long. It has been there in the background with extraordinary producers like Kathleen Kennedy and Barbara Broccoli but let's foreground it and look forward to a set of stories with a voice in a new register coming through.


Susanna's latest film, a screen adaptation of Le Carre's thriller Our Kind Of Traitor, is out in cinemas on Friday May 13th

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