‘Women's Work' Research Project

Research project exploring the contribution of women who worked in the British film and television industries from 1933-1989.

This four year AHRC-funded project (2014-2017) is a collaboration between the Universities of Leeds and De Montfort, and works in partnership with BECTU, the film and television union for the UK, and Learning on Screen. Its principal aim is to research, record and assess the economic and creative contribution women made to British film and television production, between 1933 and 1989. It uses a range of print and oral sources including oral history material, union membership data, trade journals and personnel and production files, held at a number of national and regional archives and libraries including the BFI, the BBC, the British Library, and Feminist Archive North amongst others.

The project team is Dr Melanie Bell, Principal Investigator (University of Leeds from 2016, previously Newcastle University); Dr Vicky Ball, Co-Investigator (De Montfort); Frances Galt, Doctoral Candidate; Sue Bradley, Research Associate (2014-2015).

The project’s research has five elements: a quantitative survey of the numbers of women in the industries, and the range of roles in which they were employed; a qualitative assessment of women’s experience of working in the industries; case studies of several industry grades within selected production areas; a database of union membership records and a contextual website hosting new oral history interviews, produced in collaboration with Learning on Screen, and an oral history resource to be used by the union and other stakeholders to raise awareness around gender equality.

Quantitative and Qualitative Materials

In surveying the numbers of women in the industries the project team drew on two key quantitative sources: ACT/T trade union membership applications and BBC staff lists. To assess women’s experiences of working in film and television the research drew on personal testimony in the form of oral history interviews. Through these two different types of historical source material - quantitative and qualitative – we built a history of women’s contribution to, and experience of, film and television production. In producing case studies of industry grades and production areas the team prioritised roles which had received relatively little scholarly interest to date including wardrobe and make-up, women’s work in regional ITV companies and BBC production centres, and those in non-mainstream genres including instructional, educational and campaigning formats.

At the centre of the Learning on Screen resource is a database of union membership records and a contextual website hosting new oral history interviews. This is a unique resource of hitherto unavailable historical data and is of significant interest to a wide range of people including researchers of media, labour, social and gender history, archivists, practitioners working in the creative industries and their representative bodies. The oral history resource (‘Voices for Change’) was developed by the project for the union to use in its training sessions and workshops to raise awareness around gender equality. Current industry practitioners’ face a number of challenges in their professional lives and engaging with the experience of past employees through the spoken word has proven an effective mechanism for generating discussion amongst workshop participants about issues of equality and representation in the workplace.

Past, Present and Future Histories

The research documents aspects of film and television history about which little is known, and takes seriously women’s work and contribution to cultural production. It creates a body of knowledge which intervenes in on-going debates in film and television studies, production studies, labour history and gender studies concerning, e.g, the organisation of work, creative labour, media archaeology, film historiography, gender and cultural production, and archiving. This will have a wider impact on both the study of film and television and our understanding of the role of women in twentieth-century society and its creative industries.

Although historical in focus the project asks: what kind of wider impact on current working practices might follow from its research? The UK has the largest creative sector within the European Union and its industries are major employers. Recent government-commissioned reports however have highlighted the small numbers of women in senior roles and the high attrition rate of the female workforce over thirty-five years of age. What are the reasons behind this? How could the situation be changed? The project’s research brings into focus how employment pathways, traditions and cultures have developed over time. Knowing more about what these were like in the past will helps us to understand their legacies and their impact on women working in film and television today. Through this history the project will provide an important body of evidence that directly connects the current experience of women with their predecessors. The project will have significant public benefit, particularly for women currently working in film and television as the sector’s freelance nature makes it difficult for them as individuals to address structural inequalities. By documenting the historical realities of gendered pathways and working practices, and supporting stakeholders such as the UK-based Women in Film & Television and BECTU in their use of this evidence, the project’s research will intervene in ongoing debates about women and the media and create real pressure for change.