Three-D Issue 34: Imagining a new future: 2020 and women working in the screen sector

Leung Wing-Fai
King’s College London

For the UK screen sector, Covid-19 is only one reason why 2020 has been an extraordinary year so far. The referendum of 2016 resulted in the withdrawal of Britain from the European Union on the 31st of January. The screen sector forecasted serious adverse impacts, mostly due to the loss of freedom of movement of workers, the UK’s removal from the Digital Single Market, and the loss of financing (The Screen Sector Task Force, 2017; McVay, 2019). The conclusion of the #MeToo movement followed—a collective effort mobilized as a result of the allegations of severe sexual harassment and abuse by the Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein in 2017 (Kantor & Twohey, 2017; Farrow 2017). While the revelations demonstrate the power imbalance mostly affecting women across the global film industry, its impact has reverberated in the British screen sector. Chinese-British Rowena Chiu is an important spokesperson for the #MeToo movement, who disclosed how Weinstein sexually assaulted her during working hours while she was a young personal assistant. Chiu agreed to a financial settlement and signed a non-disclosure agreement. The movement highlighted the lack of robust accountability in the sector to protect individual workers in a labour market that relies on nepotism and reputation. Harvey Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years of incarceration on 11 March 2020. The lockdown period in the UK commenced on the 23rd of March.

The creative media sector has been celebrated as the beacon for economic growth in the post-industrial economy, while numerous academic studies have demonstrated the forms of (self-)exploitative and harmful labour that exists (Conor, Gill and Taylor 2015; Dent 2017; Duffy 2017; McRobbie 2015). The project-based and informal practices of media work are persistent barriers for women in the sector because of the difficulties of gaining access to male-dominated networks (Leung et al. 2015, Wreyford 2015; Dent 2017, Directors UK 2018; WGGB and ALCS 2019). Intersectionally, gender, ethnicity, age, ability, and caring responsibilities are all proven factors of individual experiences of discrimination (Crenshaw 1991; Dent 2019; Friedman, Liddy 2020; O’Brien and Laurison 2016; Oakley and O’Brien 2016; Randle, Forson and Calveley 2015; Saha 2017). The individualistic underpinning of the neo-liberal economy and the lack of collective action that champion labour rights characterize screen sector employment. While diversity policies exist in the UK film and television industries (Newsinger and Eikhof 2020), those from the vulnerable groups are likely to be disproportionately affected by the lockdown and the inevitable recession that follows, further exposing the structural inequalities and precarity among screen sector workers.

The ongoing pandemic has made visible the sector’s fragile employment structure. An estimated 170,000 workers in Hollywood and 50,000 freelancers in the UK lost their jobs (Pulver, 2020) since numerous film and television shows were cancelled and scheduled filming ceased. Further empirical research will be needed to gauge the extent of the negative effects of the pandemic on women working in the screen sector but the impacts of Covid-19 are demonstrably gendered (Gillard, 2020). It exacerbates the existing inequalities facing women in work and at home because they take on disproportionately home-schooling and care duties. The ability to self-isolate, stock-pile and bounce back from the lockdown is dependent on one’s social and economic statuses. Remote working has not been possible for a large number of workers in a range of production roles. Covid-19 reminds us of the 2009-2010 recession in the UK film and television sector when ‘women lost their jobs at a rate that was six times that of men, indicating the particular and heightened vulnerability of women in the industry’ (Leung et al. 2015: 53). Women in Film and TV (UK) campaigns for the huge number of freelancers and self-employed workers—two-thirds of those they surveyed—who are unable to claim for either of the government’s support schemes (SEISS and CJRS for the self-employed and job-retention respectively). The vulnerability of some female workers can be gleaned from this respondent: ‘It’s now nearly 4 months without a job and without pay. I’m 5 months pregnant… I am spending the last of the savings I do have.’1

The restart of production has been cautious, following the many social distancing, and health and safety measures. The British Film Commission, UK Broadcasters, Cinema Association, UK Screen Alliance, Pact and Bectu have all issued guidelines to companies and individuals.2 Beyond the creation of a Covid-safe working environment, however, much less attention has been paid to the future of changing work cultures and practices that ensure the physical and mental health and safety of workers. Covid-19, Brexit, and Harvey Weinstein’s conviction are three major events that have exposed the instability of the global screen production industry. On the other hand, this might be the juncture that the media industry needed to examine the role it should play in contemporary society. Communications as public services have proved to be vital for our well-being during the pandemic (Isakovi, 2020). Software and platforms have enabled remote communication during the lockdown, and film and television continue to bring some relief to those in isolation. We should care about the job losses and the future challenges in the screen sector, especially as they affect female workers. This is a critical juncture in which practitioners, stakeholders from relevant unions and campaigning organizations need to work together to create a better, safer and more sustainable labour market for women.







Conor, Bridget, Rosalind Gill and Stephanie Taylor (2015) ‘Gender and Creative Labour’, Sociological Review 63(1) Special Issue ‘Gender and Creative Labour’, 1-22.

Crenshaw, Kimberle (1991) ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color’, Stanford Law Review I43(6), 1241-1299.

Dent, Tamsyn (2019) ‘Devalued Women, Valued Men: Motherhood, Class and Neoliberal Feminism in the Creative Media Industries’, Media, Culture & Society

Dent, Tamsyn (2017) Feeling Devalued: The Creative Industries, Motherhood, Gender and Class Inequality. Doctorate Thesis. Bournemouth University, UK.

Directors UK (2018) Who’s Calling the Shots? Gender Inequality Among Screen Directors Working in UK Television. London: Directors UK.

Duffy, Brooke Erin (2017) (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Farrow, Ronan (2017) ‘From Aggressive Overtures to Sexual Assault: Harvey Weinstein’s Accusers Tell Their Stories’, The New Yorker. October 23.

Gillard, Julia (2020) ‘The impacts of Covid-19 are gendered – but there may be cause for hope’, King’s College London.

Isakovi, Nela P. (2020) ‘COVID-19: What has COVID-19 Taught Us about Neoliberalism?’, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Kantor, Jodi and Megan Twohey (2017) ‘Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades’, The New York Times. 6 October.

Leung, Wing-Fai, Rosalind Gill and Keith Randle (2015) ‘Getting In, Getting On, Getting Out? Women as Career Scramblers in the UK Film and Television Industries’, Sociological Review 63(1) Special Issue ‘Gender and Creative Labour’, 50-65.

Liddy, Susan. (2020). ‘Where are the Women? Exploring perceptions of a gender order in the Irish Film Industry’, S. Liddy, (ed.), Women in the Irish Film Industry: Stories and Storytellers. Cork: Cork University Press, p.61-86.

McRobbie, Angela (2015) Be Creative: Making a Living in the New Culture Industries. Cambridge: Polity.

McVay, John (2019). ‘The Brexit Conundrum: Its impact on UK’s broadcasting and production industry’, The Royal Television Society.

Newsinger, Jack and Doris Ruth Eikhof (2019) ‘Explicit and Implicit Diversity Policy in the the UK Film and Television Industries’, Journal of British Cinema and Television 17(1), 47-69.

O’Brien, Dave, Daniel Laurison, Andrew Miles and Sam Friedman (2016) ‘Are the creative industries meritocratic? An analysis of the 2014 British Labour Force Survey’, Cultural Trends 25(2), 116-131.

Oakley, Kate and Dave O’Brien (2016) Cultural Value and Inequality: A Critical Literature Review. London: AHRC.

Pulver, Andrew (2020) ‘At Least 170,000 Lose Jobs as Film Industry Grinds to a Halt Due to Coronavirus’, The Guardian, March 19.

Randle, Keith, Cynthia Forson and Moira Calveley (2015) ‘Towards a Bourdieusian Analysis of the Social Composition of the UK Film and Television Workforce’, Work, Employment and Society 29(4), 590-606.

Saha, Anamik (2017) Race and the Cultural Industries. Cambridge: Polity.

The Screen Sector Task Force (2017) Impacts of Leaving the EU on the UK’s Screen Sector. London: BFI.

WGGB (The Writers’ Union) and ALCS (2019) Gender Inequality and Screenwriters. London: WGGB and ALCS.

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