Television - No Career for a Woman?

Television - No Career for a Woman?

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Friday, 1st April 2011

On Wednesday, 17th November 2010, the RTS Southern Centre held a panel discussion in Southampton on the problems facing women who wanted a career in TV. A lively discussion ensued, illustrating the difficulty of coping with established attitudes in the industry and juggling family life with the 24/7 needs of a TV career. The Miriam O'Reilly ageism case made the topic super-relevant and there were a lot of newsy comments, both from the panellists and from the floor.

The high-profile panel were:

                   • Lorraine Heggessey (Former controller BBC1 and CEO Talkback)
                   • Jo Ball (MD Ricochet)
                   • Fiona Phillips (TV Presenter and Journalist)
                   • Dermot Caulfield (Series Editor, Bang Goes The Theory – a single dad with 3 small kids)
                   • Mandy Cooper (Former TV Producer now Head of Communications at Dorset Cereals).


Some of the key points raised:

                 • People were shocked by the Skillset report findings in terms of women leaving the industry 
                   over the last 3 years (750 men versus 5000 women)
                 • It may be easier for women to get into television, but it’s getting harder to keep them
                 • There was disagreement over whether the O’Reilly case shows ageism or not
                 • Women are making enormous sacrifices to stay in TV, and many are giving up because 
                   they can’t see a way to balance work and home
                 • Lorraine and Fiona had some great anecdotes about their struggle to the top
                 • A rough manifesto for change was put forward

LORRAINE HEGGESSEY: (making her first appearance on a public stage since leaving

                • “I know Jay and it’s not true she dislikes women” (re O’Reilly case)
                • Argued that moving Countryfile to primetime was “a hugely courageous decision”, and you 
                  have to consider what’s right for the slot
                • Says dozens of beautiful young women come to see her, wanting to be presenters, and 
                  they won’t stand a chance because they don’t have that special something
                • Told a hilarious story about having to have dinner at short notice with the gangster Mad 
                 Frankie Fraser when one of her daughters was a baby – she took her to the restaurant
                 and had to breastfeed her in front of him
                • Was shocked at the Skillset figures and wondered whether women took redundancy 
                 because the blokes would fight, so the women would say “all right, I’ll go then”
                • Said that earlier in her career she felt she had to “out-bloke the blokes”
                • People assumed when she got the BBC1 job that she would be useless until proved 
                  brilliant, whereas people assume men are brilliant until proved otherwise
                • Thinks women are getting better at asking for more money
                • Describes one Sunday evening when she was trying to match her daughter’s white socks 
                  ready for school, and she thought to herself “I bet Alan Yentob doesn’t have to do this!”
                • Has always paid to get the housework done, so she can concentrate on the kids


                • Has battled to find a work/family balance, which often led to clashes with her husband over 
                • Once had to interview Victoria Beckham at short notice and couldn’t find childcare, so took 
                  her baby with her and fortunately Posh’s mum was there and ‘scooped my baby up’ and
                  looked after him. She recalls her son playing on a mat with Brooklyn
                • Says she “finds it cringeworthy” to think about what Mirian O’Reilly is doing, because 
                   presenters “have to get on with it and take the good times with the bad”. But she laments 
                   that there are not more older women on screen (she loved watching Cilla Black) and asks 
                  why, by contrast, there are “so many wrinkly old blokes” instead
                • Still feels guilty that she was working too hard when her mother was ill
                • Recalled one former boss calling her into his room (he had his feet on the desk) and 
                  demanding “Phillips, darn my socks will you!”
                • Says she sometimes wishes she had “a real profession...I always wanted to be a doctor”!


                • Was a single parent from the start of her career
                • Struggled to find a balance in the early years
                • Thinks “maybe we should all have babies a bit younger”
                • Recommends women move to the regions to improve their chances of getting a work-life
                • Says work pressures are “probably the reason why I only have one child”
                • Also thinks “you have to accept that having a child is going to eat into your time
                • Argues strongly that age and beauty are not the issues around women presenters. “it’s 
                  not about how you look, it’s about personality”
                • Points to Sarah Beeny as the quintessential woman on screen. “She’s a brilliant presenter
                 with 4 kids. She does it her way”. Thinks women generally should be a bit more ballsy
                • Fights hard to keep her top women staff whatever their domestic commitments - “Some 
                  people are just too valuable to lose”


                • Left the industry (was a series producer at the BBC) because she wanted a better 
                  work-life balance
                • Moved to Dorset to raise her family
                • Laments the collapse of TV jobs in the regions, which afford many women a better 
                  balance and often give them access to relatives who can help with childcare
                • You also avoid long commutes, ie wasting hours on the train when you could be at home 
                  with the kids
                •“TV’s not the only job there is”!
                •Loves her work in PR
                •Mentors are a really useful way of helping women stay on track in their TV careers


                • Became a single dad of three kids under 10 when his wife died a couple of years ago
                • Was treated “like a minor celebrity” by other people, which single mums never get
                • Culture of presentee-ism is problematic: “doing the job well is not about how long you stay 
                  in the office”
                • Admits he rarely goes filming in order to manage his family commitments better
                • Says he became a dad very early and felt isolated from the other blokes he worked with, 
                  because they were always going out while he stayed in
                • Didn’t quite realise how much support he’d had from his wife (a doctor) until he lost her
                • Argues that it’s easier for people in the higher echelons to manage family commitments, 
                  because they have the cash to sort childcare etc
                • Competition for jobs doesn’t help women with restricted working hours: “I advertised for a 
                  runner and had over 100 applications. With that kind of competition you’re going to 
                 employ the person best placed to give you 100%”


                • One woman said she had an abortion so she could take a job
                • One said she had just left the BBC at 42, disillusioned, had sacrificed having kids for her 
                  career – and now feels she made a big mistake
                • One said she felt ‘over the top’ at 35 and was wondering ‘what next’
                • One was a PHD student, investigating the gender gap in TV with Skillset 
                • Several people said the collapse of ITV in the regions had been devastating for many women
                • One man said “let’s face it, women are better than men!”


The panel agreed the following could help keep women in TV:

                • More flexible working (but NOT full-time work for part-time pay)
                • Good mentoring schemes
                • More opportunities in the regions, where work-life balance is easier to achieve
                • Support for women to set up their own companies
                • More high-profile role models not afraid to talk openly about their commitments
                • More job-sharing


Report and photos: Alison Martin



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