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14 October 2016

In the Spotlight… Equal Representation for Actresses

by Emma Morgan

In a bid to achieve greater equality in representation and pay by 2020, actresses including Elizabeth Berrington, Polly Kemp and Deirdre Mullins formed Equal Representation for Actresses (ERA) in late 2015. They spoke to WFTV’s Emma Morgan about balance, unconscious bias and broadening the stories we tell.

Elizabeth Berrington, Polly Kemp and Deirdre Mullins

On your website, you cite Eva Wiseman’s Guardian column, written after the Geena Davis Institute symposium at last year’s LFF, as a catalyst for forming ERA.

Elizabeth: I was in the middle of nowhere, filming, in a hotel room by myself. And it was a combination of reading the article, which is wonderful, the final remark that [Geena] makes about quotas – the huge insult of knowing that there’s only 17% of women in any given crowd scene – and it being the week that Suffragette opened. So I wrote a little text about my frustration, and thought “I’m going to send this a little bit further than my normal circle of women friends, to all of the women in the business that I’ve stored in my phone over the years,” daring to take a step into the unknown. And I had this absolutely vast response, a huge rolling wail from actresses and directors and producers, begging us to start a conversation about it. That led to making a connection with Polly, and our first meeting, when I first met Deirdre. We’ve blossomed from there.

Polly: As freelancers, you tend to work in small networks, and have small conversations. What’s been quite brilliant about this is it’s a larger network of people and somehow that depersonalised it. We’re a collective, and there’s something quite liberating about it – we’ve all met with one single aim, under one issue, so it seems less personal and more forward-thinking.

Elizabeth: We’re well aware that we’re punching above our weight, we’re only a small group but the women we’re connected to are high profile: Olivia Colman is very much onboard and Katherine Parkinson was one of the first women who was sending out the texts; I was speaking to Natalie Dormer a few weeks ago, and Kelly Macdonald. So people are really excited and, with that, comes the traction they have as faces in the media, the publicity angle. And we met Oona King and had an invitation to go to Parliament, and we realised that we’ve got a foot in the door, and these doors will open if we ask the right questions.

era-logo-final-website-3The main aim of ERA is 50:50 representation – and pay – for women on screen, in television and theatre. Have you always had an awareness of this discrepancy?

Deirdre: When I went to drama school, out of about 3,000 people who applied, two out of three applicants were women and yet for every woman who was offered a place, three times as many men got places. So even at the entry level we are absolutely aware that your competition is so much more fierce, and men are going to be much more successful and earn a lot more money than you…

Polly: In my drama school, I think it was eight women to 16 men. Two to one.

Deirdre: …But I think people are generally very shocked when you point it out to them, it’s something that people haven’t really thought about. When the prejudice is there, all around you, you don’t even think about it, which is what we need to change, that automatic male bias.

Elizabeth: When you leave drama school, it can be many years before the realities of the business hit home and by that point you’re already on your trajectory, you’re really invested in it, so you have to make it work and get on with that stuff. Geena Davis’ report just flags up how awfully bleak it is… There are very few middle-aged women out there, and you’ll struggle to find a women with grey hair across British broadcasting or film. It’s quite a distortion of our society. You’re working, you’ve got a long list of credits on IMDB, you’ve made a life for yourself, and then that literally falls away when you’re in your mid-40s.

Polly: When I first started as an actress in the late 80s, I was very enthusiastic and excited and, in many ways, quite politicised, angry about the fact there were less opportunities for me than men, however I did OK… When you’re young, you just want a job and I was aware I was beating the odds, thank goodness. Now, there’s a very small percentage of women at the top, and they’re objectified and they’ve got to be of a certain body type, it’s more stark. If I was coming into the industry now I doubt I would beat the odds, because I was curvy and a bit mouthy, I didn’t fit that norm. There are contemporaries of mine who are fat, middle-aged men and they still work, but for me it’s still critical that I watch my weight, that I check how I look and present myself – I can’t just be a woman, I have to be a certain type of woman.

Isabella Rossellini recently told the Guardian that her mother Ingrid Bergman said “there is no [acting] job for women between 45 and 60”.

Elizabeth: And it’s not for want of trying… Female writers, and male writers who write about women, their work isn’t being commissioned or green-lit, we’re being told there isn’t an appetite for it, but the evidence is the opposite. And it’s not just the Bridesmaids, it’s projects like The Bridge, top-quality drama, thrilling for all concerned. We want to see those stories told and we want to be part of the telling.

Deirdre: That Scando stuff shows that women as leads are hugely successful, so there’s no financial argument. No one sat down and said, “Oh The Bridge, only women will want to watch that. The Killing? Only women would be interested in that story…”

Polly: It’s just not taking the risk to investigate the variety of women [on stage and screen]. You get a variety of men, but you don’t get a variety of women. We know there’s a connection between what women see and what women can do – that’s Geena Davis’ pitch There is a moral imperative to broaden the type of stories that we tell, the type of women that we represent, not only because it creates fairness within our industry but also because it inspires girls coming up to think they can do differently. It’s about encouraging people. It feels like there are decisions made by people that don’t necessarily consult the audience.

Elizabeth: If either Sally Wainwright or Kay Mellor took a season off, there’d be so many fewer roles for women out there…


Is a 50:50 gender balance as simple as changing character and presenter genders, or do you think it requires a more fundamental top-down change?

Polly: We’ve worked a lot with Directors UK, and what we know is that the more female directors there are, the more female writers there are and the more female producers there are, the more women appear on screen, so it would make sense that it is top-down. If you have more women in those key strategic, decision-making positions up at the top, then – I think, I hope – you will get change.

Deirdre: We’re working bottom-up, too, with the Neropa [‘Neutral Roles Parity‘] suggestion…

Polly: Belinda [Ruth Stieve], a German actress who’s also fascinated with data, began to do some research into what’s happening in Germany, and she came up with a blindingly simple idea about how to rectify gender balance on an existing project. You look at a script, agree on roles which, occupationally, cannot be any different, i.e. it /has/ to be a man, but once you’ve done that, with all the other parts, that could be subject to unconscious bias, you start from the top and go Woman, Man, Woman, Man down the script, so that you even out the parts.

Elizabeth: It’s really a question of production companies recognising that women are not being represented properly in their field. They could commit to the Neropa rule and literally, overnight, have 20 or 30 per cent more women in that particular show. It’s a really effective tool that we’re offering up today that can get an awful lot of the hard work done, without any of the hassle.

Polly: Women in Journalism say there is no pipeline for women; at the entry point, there’s some degree of fairness, but as you’re progressing through women get filtered away, leaving one or two at the top. So it’s about, if you’ve got 50/50, you can create a pipeline.

Elizabeth: We’ve also been very inspired by Act for Change, because the manner in which they talk about gender parity is to talk about it as a diversity issue; you’re not serving your diverse membership if you’re not acknowledging that woman as an entire gender are not fully represented. We occupy such a minute space as women, and women of colour have an even smaller place to occupy…

Polly: There have been a lot of panel discussions, there needs to be a step forward.

Denise Gough wears an ERA t-shirt while receiving the Critics’ Circle Best Actress Award 2016

Come January, it’s possible the three most powerful people on the planet will be women – Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Hillary Clinton. Politics aside, is that not exciting, if you believe in Geena Davis’ maxim that ‘If she can see it, she can be it’?

Polly: I think if you’re going to have Hillary ClintonAngela Merkel and Theresa May, what you want to see, sitting under them, in their cabinets, is 50/50 so that you’ve got that balance. Margaret Thatcher broke through as a woman but then surrounded herself with men. You don’t want the same situation where you’ve got a woman sitting at the top but underneath it doesn’t change.

Elizabeth: If those decision-makers are making similar decisions that disenfranchise women within this industry, then there’s no difference either way, really, and we’ll still have our job to do, to push and knock on those doors and demand change.

Finally, what can people who want to get involved with ERA do, at this stage?

Elizabeth: They can come to our website and sign up to receive our newsletter, and then we can let them know about our preparedness for our meeting in Parliament and our coalition of gender-parity groups…

Deirdre: …And follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook, because the weight of numbers is persuasive.

Polly: We’re looking to work alongside producers and filmmakers, so if you would like to get actively involved please email us, at We need help with raising money, to fund research, and are always looking for interesting ways to communicate our message and spread the word, so if you want to get involved with a really exciting campaign at a grass-roots level, get in touch.