I very vividly remember being told during the early years of my television career that “there are two types of women over 35 in this industry, the ‘telly widows’ and the ones who leave”. I was a 22 year-old researcher at the time and whilst the idea of being a ‘telly widow’ didn’t sound very appealing at all, having babies and ‘settling down’ seemed like a long way off too… Working in telly was all I could ever imagine wanting to do, and anyway, maybe by the time it came around for me, things would’ve changed? …Right?
It was certainly a TV industry cultural phenomenon that I was aware of from very early on. I recall people sharing the Charlie Brooker Screenwipe clip when it first came out in 2007 – https:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIyg2a72uV4 – and my colleagues and I laughed at how ‘funny’ it was and how familiar the narrative seemed. We all knew ‘that woman’ but at the same time, weirdly, no one seemed horrified by it enough to be screaming “this is not ok!”… I guess we never thought ‘that woman’ would be us.
My twenties raced by in a bit of a blur… it was not unusual for me to spend most of the year abroad, clocking up work trips to over twenty-five different countries in just five years. It was fun and I would often talk about how ‘lucky’ I was (I do still feel like I am!) that I got to see and do such amazing things. It’s only as I’ve got a bit older that I’ve thought more about this idea of being ‘lucky’ to be in telly though – How it perhaps ties in with coming from a working-class background and how it benefits the industry to have people who feel ‘grateful’ because then we’ll put up with and accept an often toxic working culture that most other people in ‘less glamorous’ industries would balk at. I won’t examine all those in detail here, but the long hours, low pay …the systemic culture of bullying… the widespread sexual harassment… the institutional racism and failure to address diversity of all kinds…the widespread nepotism… the appalling statistics on mental health… When you start to unpick all of these and analyse your own experiences of them in the industry and ask yourself “well, why did I put up in with working a 100 hour week for no overtime pay?” or “why didn’t I tell anyone when that Director sexually harassed me?” or “why didn’t I say anything when that Exec bullied me and would leave me hiding and crying in the toilets at work everyday?” …The answer is often that “I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to be labelled as a trouble maker” …“I didn’t want to stop being hired”… “Who could I tell? …and even if I did tell someone, it wouldn’t make any difference!”. I absolutely love my job and yet all these things were (and still are) an accepted part of the workplace culture. ‘It’s just how telly is’. However, that doesn’t mean it’s ok.
It was at a friend’s baby’s christening that I can first recall identifying that actually, working in television was making me really quite unhappy and I began to realise that things in my life had to change. I was twenty-nine and in the midst of my first Series Producer job. I hadn’t been sleeping properly, wasn’t eating properly and I was probably drinking a little bit too much. I didn’t seem to have any ‘downtime’ and I felt under overwhelming pressure at work. By this point, I had become notorious amongst my non-TV friends for being ‘flakey’ and had managed to miss several of their weddings, countless nights out, 30th birthday and engagement parties …and even, I’m ashamed to say, a funeral, all because of my job. So it surprised everyone, including me, that I had managed to make good on my promise to attend the baptism. All my friends remarked on how long it had been since they’d seen me and I regaled them with tales of what I’d been up to… A stint working in LA and New York earlier that year, a work trip to The Maldives where I’d stayed in a $3,000 a night suite, been scuba diving and eaten at one of the world’s best restaurants. A job filming on a yacht once holidayed on by Beyoncé and Jay Z, a trip to Iceland, where I’d seen the northern lights and gone snowmobiling…Being backstage at the MTV Awards… Gosh, what a jet-set time I was having! …I didn’t mention the exhaustion, perpetual anxiety and self-doubt or the fear that I was completely disassociated and disconnected from any semblance of ‘real life’.
I didn’t tell them that I felt wracked with guilt whenever I would speak to my parents and they would note how long it had been since they’d seen me. That being away so much meant that I would often go several weeks or even months without going into a supermarket, making myself a meal (or even my own cup of tea!) or how spending so much time in hotels wasn’t really all that great and I missed just having time at home. This ‘glamorous’ and ‘fun’ lifestyle I was living was in fact, really quite weird and at times, very lonely and depressing.As the day of the Christening wore on and I took my turn to hold my friends baby, I realised two things – Firstly, that when the conversations turned to ‘normal life’ and chat about what people had been watching on TV, what films they’d seen at the cinema, which great new local bar they’d discovered, what books they’d read, their plans to get married and have babies (as in actual plans, not just daydreams!) or for my fellow singletons, chat about what fun dates they’d been on and guys they’d met on nights out… it dawned on me that once I stopped talking about work, I had NO chat. Nothing. I could not contribute to any of these conversations with my oldest, closest and dearest friends, because all I had done all year (and really for the eight years prior) was ‘make telly’ and whilst my friends were always impressed, keen to hear the stories of where I’d been and what I’d done and for me to give them the latest tit-bits of celebrity gossip, really, none of that actually mattered. It wasn’t ‘real life’.
I remember feeling as I looked around the group, that all my friends’ lives were travelling down one path and mine was heading very firmly down another. I thought back to the Charlie Brooker Screenwipe sketch, only this time it didn’t seem funny at all. I was fast approaching 30, single, and not only did I know plenty of ‘nepotistic shit head boy’s’ (this reference will only make sense if you watch the clip!) but I was also sleeping with one – my boss’s son who was a couple of years younger than me and had recently been working on location with me. It was a fling that was clearly heading nowhere, but which enabled me to feel some degree of connection to someone without any real effort or emotional commitment required. I had neither the time or headspace for that.
I realised that day at the Christening, that I was on a pathway to becoming the ‘telly widow’ stereotype I’d been warned about almost a decade earlier and that I would happily trade all the ‘glamorous’ (read: definitely not glamorous!) jobs I’d been doing to have what my ‘real life’ friends had. I wanted to be able to go home and sleep in my own bed every night, I wanted to have time to see my mates and my parents and be around for their birthday parties. I wanted to cook my own meals and go to the supermarket. I wanted a husband and I wanted a baby – but how the hell would that ever happen when I was never in one place long enough to meet anyone and the genre of telly I’d ended up in and the freelance nature of the work wouldn’t allow for that?
It would be another year or so before I had what I realise now was a kind of mini-breakdown… Utterly exhausted, I had my first – and thankfully only ever – anxiety attack. It came the day after I had been involved in a near miss car accident whilst driving and exhausted at the end of another relentlessly long day filming. As I had swerved to miss the other on-coming vehicle, my first thought had been ‘it’s a shame I didn’t have just a little crash so I could have a couple of days off work’. Realising that wasn’t a normal response to the incident, I decided that I needed to stop for a bit, to take a break from working the kind of ridiculous hours I was doing and work out what the hell I was doing with my life. The following day, I quit my Series Producer job, just two weeks into the contract. I remember feeling quite sure that I would ‘never work again’ – but at the same time, partly not caring if I didn’t. I had nothing left to give. I consciously took 6 weeks off work, immersed myself in doing ‘normal things’ and attempted to ‘reset’.
A few months later I started dating. As things progressed in our relationship, I made a conscious effort to ‘settle down’ by deciding to take on more edit producing jobs, which involved less responsibility and less time away on location. I don’t regret any of those choices. I’m now married and have a young family… but I definitely, definitely don’t ‘have it all’ as I suspect is sometimes perceived. Far from it. Whilst I’ve managed to get the husband, babies and some sense of a ‘normal’ home-life that I craved, keeping even a toe in the industry has been really, really tough – almost impossible at times. It has required a lot of sacrifice, taken a toll on my mental health, impacted on my children and their well-being and left me feeling a good percentage of the time like I would be better off jacking it all in and retraining to do something ‘more secure, stable and family friendly’ . Although I still haven’t worked out what that would be.
Although I feel ‘lucky’ that I have managed to return to making television since having a baby, the industry I love so much hasn’t really shown a lot of love or support in return. I feel stuck working as an edit producer, on the kind of shows I used to SP, often working under SP’s who are younger and far less experienced than me. Opportunities to progress and be promoted, or work on the shows I really want to are few and far between and would require a significant sacrifice of the time I get to spend with my family. Most of the time I feel like I’m just treading water, but at the same time, am made to feel that I should be grateful for even that, because so many other women around me feel like they’re drowning.
Like the vast majority of ‘Telly Mums’ I have often felt a pressure to hide my maternal identity and to ‘be someone else at work’ for fear that people (and by ‘people’ I mean usually men or women without children in positions of power) will perceive me as being less committed, less focused, less hard-working and less passionate about work since having a family. Throughout my first pregnancy, I did my best to avoid telling anyone at work I was pregnant. I didn’t make any sort of announcements on social media and with anyone who did know, I would go to great lengths to caveat any chats about my unborn baby with ‘but it’s not going to change anything’ ‘I’ll be back at work straight away’ ‘nothing’s going to change’. What should have been a time of joy was overshadowed by an anxiety that having a baby would mean the end of my career.
Of course I would come to learn that things do change when you have a baby – but I would argue that this is not in the negative ways that many TV employers would like to make us all believe. In my experience, most ‘Telly Mums’ are in reality, the exact opposite of the ‘less committed’ ‘less hard-working’ ‘less on- it’ idea that some like to perpetuate. Telly Mums generally bring to work with them more patience, a greater ability to multitask and manage their workload, more kindness and more care – care for their team, for the contributors and for the content they bring to the screen. We should be celebrating and valuing these skills and realising the benefit that having these kinds of experienced women in senior management positions brings to a production and to our overall industry culture.
For all women working in television, but especially those with young children and caring commitments, life is often made really difficult and the industry could and should be doing more to support, promote and retain them. Better HR procedures that extend to freelancers and not just those with the elusive staff positions, training for people in management roles, fairer and more transparent hiring practices, flexible-working and job-shares being seen as the norm rather than the exception and the creation of a culture whereby having a life outside of work is something to be celebrated, not frowned upon would make an enormous difference and go a long way to tackling the overwhelming drop off rates for female talent and the horrific statistics we see being reported on mental health.
Obviously some women do ‘make it work’ to have a family and continue their careers – but they are generally few and far between. Those who do manage to ‘make it work’ will often face judgements on their commitment as a parent and there will be snide remarks from other members of the team that “the amount of hours she works, it’s a wonder her kids even know who she is!”. Damned if we do, damned when we don’t.
The women who seem to ‘have it all’ are usually in staff jobs and always appear at least to be very together and successful (depending on how you define success of course). When you ask ‘how do they do it?’ it is almost always the case that they have a live-in nanny or au pair, a ‘very understanding husband’ – and although they will very often too, hint at an overwhelming ‘maternal guilt’ – these are the small number of women that other women hoping to have a family and career get to look up to and strive to be like. It begs the question, that if that is the only way for Telly Mum’s to ‘make it work’ and actually reach the top in this industry, then what happens to all the Single Mums? The women from poorer, working-class backgrounds? Women who face issues of illness or disability? The women without partners and families around to help? Those who have children with additional needs? Those who also have elderly parents or a partner to care for? The women who didn’t make it to SP level or above before having their children? The freelancers who will never stand a chance of getting a coveted staff job?… The answer is, sadly, that they admit defeat and leave. This is not just an anecdotal observation, but it is a fact that is backed up by data. There have been a number of studies and reports looking at these issues – and yet there seems little urgency to bring about workplace cultural change.
It is still the case that women are regularly told (and this was a verbatim quote to a girl I know only very recently) ‘You either want to work in telly or you want to get married and have babies, you can’t have both ‘. Not only are we told this, but it’s what we see all around us. Mothers are virtually invisible in the TV industry. So too are women over 50.
The more I’ve thought about the treatment of women in television and what happens to both the ‘Telly Mums’ and ‘The Telly Widows’ (not my term!!) the more it seems that most women in the industry face less of a binary choice between their career and motherhood as had been explained to me when I was first starting out – but rather, a sort of ‘Hobson’s Choice’ – whereby whether we have a baby or not, the industry will most likely chew us up and spit us out eventually anyway. The ‘Telly Mums’ might tend to leave the industry earlier, but how many women, mothers or not, are managing to make television a fulfilling and sustainable career long-term? Even for the relatively small number of women who manage to survive the industry beyond their early forties what happens to them over 50? Where do all the freelance women go?
I have heard of and been witness to stories of appalling gendered ageism. Women over 50 (and actually even younger) being labelled as ‘past it’ ‘tired’ ‘menopausal’ and ‘out of touch’ whilst their male counterparts are considered ‘experienced’ ‘capable’ and ‘level headed’. I was only recently witness to a conversation where a male SP in his late thirties said of an extremely experienced woman in her early 50’s who had applied for an Edit Producer role “No, I remember her being my Exec like 15 years ago when I was a researcher, it’s just weird to hire her as an Edit Producer now…like, why would she even want to do that job?’. He then cast her CV aside, not giving a second thought to the reasons why she might want or indeed need the job and without placing any value on the skills and experience she would be bringing with her to the role… and so she wasn’t interviewed or even called for a ‘chat’, but a far less experienced, younger, responsibility-free girl was given the job. It’s not the younger woman’s fault of course – and I’m absolutely not about pitting women against women – but my point is that when we stop valuing women’s experience and using their age against them they are faced with no choice but to leave.
For many women, whilst their career in television still determines their reproductive choices (in various ways), even for those women who don’t have children, the outcomes aren’t plain sailing and whilst they might generally able to survive a little longer than their friends with babies, ultimately, for many, gendered ageism will leave them feeling like they’ve ‘had enough’. Most will either choose to leave, or sadly, for many, the phone just stops ringing and they are effectively forced out. All that talent and experience, just gone.
I like to think that things have got a bit better in the 17 years or so since I started out in the industry… Women are speaking up more and calling out the issues of sexism, sexual harassment and gendered inequality they face. But it’s bloody exhausting. Women face barriers to their progress at every turn – and issues of intersectionality mean that this is even more pertinent for women of colour or those women from working-class backgrounds. Women have to fight to get ahead in the first place, only to discover when we reach a point in our careers that we’re finally ‘getting ahead’, if we want a family, we will be met with a barrage of obstacles. Most women with children can’t or don’t want to go on location for long periods, work a seven day week or 16 hour days for no paid overtime. We’re still being met with a resistance to flexible-working and made to feel like we are asking the earth of our employers if we want to job-share or fit our working hours around our other commitments. Even if we somehow battle to try and overcome those hurdles, we will continue to face barriers of ageism and sexism in the industry. Women are routinely ignored, dismissed, overlooked and silenced. This isn’t always just by men, sometimes, it’s even by each other. By the time we reach our forties and fifties, most of us have just had enough.
Little seems to have changed since the issue was already so well known that Charlie Brooker made his ‘Career in Telly’ sketch in 2007. We can all look around us and see the disproportionate under-representation of ‘older’ women. There’s a number of academic research papers, countless industry studies – dating back several years – and reports including the Ofcom annual diversity report to show it too. We all know it – but what’s actually being done to retain all these brilliant and experienced women? Why is it just accepted that they will leave? Why does no one seem to even care?
It is extremely hypocritical to be calling for a need to #bekind to on-screen talent and contributors and to talk so much about having a ‘duty of care’, but yet be simultaneously perpetuating a culture that is anything but kind and does not care about the women working in – and leaving – our industry.
**This Blog was written by a Freelancer working in unscripted television in her late thirties, she asked that she remain anonymous, but if her story resonates with you, please do get in touch. We’d love to hear from you! – firstname.lastname@example.org