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#SeenAndHeard: From ‘women’s work’ to ‘a man’s job’, Sarah Keeling on the gender gap among film & TV editors

06.10.2021

By Cecilia McAloon

Historically, the role of film editor has been relatively open to women. In the late 1920s when women were pushed out of directorial roles, editing and post-production was seen as an appropriate space for women, being akin to “sewing”. But as our technology has developed so have stereotypes surrounding women’s ability to use tech gear. Along with many roles across the tech industry as a whole, women have found themselves being pushed further and further away from editorial.


As it stands, women make up for around 25% of editors. But even that statistic owes much to the affirmative action of other women. Among the top 500 grossing films of the last few years, on films with at least one female director, women comprised 43% of editors while in films with exclusively male directors, women accounted for just 19% of editors.


One woman who is passionate about getting more women (and greater diversity in general) into the cutting room is Sarah Keeling. Keeling has been an editor for over ten years, specialising in documentary and factual. Her work has been screened across many festivals including Sundance, DOC NYC, Berlin Fashion Film Festival, and the London Short Film Festival. She’s worked on a wide variety of topics, ranging from Furries to period poverty, from fashion and music to the European refugee crisis.


Having worked for some of the biggest broadcasters such as MTV, Vice, BBC, and Channel 4, Keeling has had a broad view of the industry as a whole. Today, Keeling shares her experience of being a woman in editorial and offers her advice to any woman who’d like to embark on their own journey into editing.


How did you get started in editing?


I studied traditional drawn & stop motion animation which teaches you everything from storyboarding to character design, scripting, lighting, camera, etc right through to post, so it turned out to be a really useful course. Then I started out making music videos and campaign films for brands so I’d edit my own work. That turned into gigs where I was purely editing. I stayed in short form editing for years, then ended up on a few long form jobs via a feature doc and a director taking me with her on a TV doc, which took me to where I am now, which is (usually!) longform TV/film editing.



When did you start working, have you noticed any changes around gender equality since then, good or bad?


While I was at university I was also a production runner in commercials and on a couple of TV series and there were definitely things said to me then which would never have been said to male runners. I hope they’re not said to anyone these days but I’m not sure we’re quite there yet unfortunately.


The gender split of editors is definitely slowly improving. It’s better in short form but nowhere near equal, and I’d say TV is slightly behind that too.



Do you feel like your identity drives or informs your work and the projects you take on?


Absolutely! I’m often asked to do jobs where a woman editor has been the preferred choice, often due to the content. I’ve also been asked to cut things where an LGBTQ+ editor was preferred for the same reasons. Sometimes stories are best told by the people they affect or can understand them from an experienced perspective, things can often translate better.

In the past I’ve definitely cut things where I had very little relative experience to the story, which can also be helpful - having an outside perspective on something is important considering you’re crafting the story to be seen by potentially wide and varied audiences.

But recently I’m more mindful about taking on certain subjects where I don’t have the lived experience and someone else who does might do a better job.


Do you feel like you’ve been approached differently as a professional, particularly in technical career, because of your gender?


My tech knowledge has sometimes been underestimated, but on more subtle occasions it’s hard to know whether that’s intentional, subconscious, or whether it’s just my assumptions about being stereotyped. I’ve had very simple things explained to me, things like keyboard shortcuts I’ve known since I started editing or having the basics of proxies explained (I’ve handled and created complex proxies for years and often troubleshoot them for other people) which can be a bit frustrating. I hope that most of the time it’s just someone trying to be helpful..!





What are the biggest challenges women face when working within/entering film and TV?


I’m not a parent but out of my friends/colleagues it does feel like women take on (or are expected to take on) far more of the childcare admin/hours than men, still. I do know men in film who are as responsible as their partners but I see it come up as a problem far more often for my female friends and colleagues. This is obviously a society-wide issue but the punishing hours of this industry do make it so tough for any parent. I’ve heard from friends that coming back from maternity leave can be a serious career staller too.


Other than that there are still areas where women are often not taken as seriously as men, particularly in roles where we are still under-represented. If you can’t see someone in that role, it’s much harder to be ambitious and think you can do it too. And if others around you haven’t many women gaffers for example, they’ll almost certainly have an unconscious bias against hiring one, because they haven’t seen that either.


Sexual harassment is undeniably rife too - and while there’s issues with reporting and consequences it’s hard to say that we offer a totally safe environment across the industry for new entrants.



Do you have any thoughts on how these issues could be addressed?


In terms of diversity, we’re very good at schemes for new entrants and short term projects but to achieve real change quickly I think we need to look more at mid and senior levels. That will make a bigger shift in the culture. The talent is there but if people aren’t rightly hired and promoted they’ll leave the industry. If you’re in charge of hiring you should be extremely aware of the team you’re working with, and ensure there’s appropriate diversity and inclusion present. And if people in hiring positions are struggling to find those people in their own existing networks it’s so important to reach out, ask around, cast the net a bit wider, advertise openly, and let people who are ready but haven’t had a break yet step up into the next level of their role.


It’s also on all of us to have the difficult conversations and call things out when we see areas for improvements or problems. And be a person that others can come to for support or backup if they don’t feel able to do so themselves.


Are there particular challenges or opportunities for women wanting to work in editing?


In terms of opportunities I really think there’s a growing interest in women editors, there’s been a number of times someone’s told me they’re pleased to find out there’s a woman on the edit team (for whatever reason) or for projects where a woman editor was preferred. In terms of challenges, the hours can be tough (which isn’t a gender issue) but it can be lots of long days, expectations that you’ll work late, and that can be difficult for most people.



In your experience, are there areas of the industry that have been more welcoming to diverse voices?


I found short form editing was slightly less divided in terms of gender splits, but if you look at the big edit houses they’re still often hugely dominated by men in terms of who they have on their books. There’s lots of people in the industry who put themselves out there as interested in diversity, the kind of people who sit on panels on the subject and are clearly doing the work, or talk about the changes they want to see. Those people are there and sometimes it’s a matter of going straight to them and making that connection. Which can be daunting, but sometimes you just need a couple of people rooting for you to say your name in the right room or put you forward for something that puts you on another path.



Growing up and throughout your career, do you feel like you’ve had visible role models for women working in film/tv?


I’d say I’ve only really discovered people outside of the typical editor profile when I started to network a bit more and go looking. We all gravitate towards each other when we find each other though! I have a few groups/networks of women in post (and other roles) and it’s been such a huge help. Without that I’d have struggled to see myself in my role.


Everything I watch I check who’s cut it out of interest, and most of the time it’s still a man’s name on the editor credit. I knew there were women editors but I wasn’t sure how many there were. I definitely looked out for female filmmakers and was lucky to work with a lot of female led teams when I started out so I was sort of protected from the feeling of being ‘unusual’ as a woman editor. But in many creative roles (Director, Editor, DOP) we’re still under-represented and it definitely doesn’t help to encourage more women into the role.



Do you consider yourself a role model for young women wanting to go into editing?


I think anyone who’s occupying a space where they’re under-represented or ‘different’ (this definitely applies to some roles more than editing) has an opportunity to help bring other diverse talent up with them. So does everyone of course, but the opportunity tends to be more obvious to people who are already in that position. There definitely are male editors who are taking on that work and helping to bring in more diversity too, which is great. But we need more! And we need people in production to be aware of that too when they’re hiring.


Do you have any advice for women thinking of entering or trying to move up in these industries?


Network! Find other women editors or anyone who’s making it clear that they are genuinely interested in diversifying (in all senses) post production. It’s 100% a people industry and so many roles are hired on the basis of personal recommendations or shout-outs in whatsapp groups etc.


If you’re getting involved with the editing community online and making your ambitions known, people will listen and help. We’re generally a nice bunch and a lot of editors would be more than happy to chat or give advice. If there’s a specific kind of work you want to do, look up who cut it, and contact them. We all love talking about our work so people are usually keen to connect and chat about it (when they get time away from the edit!).



Do you have hope for the future of the industry?


I definitely have hope for the future of the industry because so many issues which Film & TV brushed under the carpet for decades are being discussed now. The TV Mindset is a great initiative demanding better working practises for the sake of TV workers’ mental health, there’s Instagram accounts like ‘@ShitMenInTVHaveSaidToMe’ where women share their stories of sexual or other harassment at work, and ‘@ia_stories’ in the US who are collecting stories of dangerous and unhealthy working practises, which is starting rumblings of a possible strike across Hollywood. The last few McTaggart lectures at the Edinburgh TV festival have loudly highlighted major issues in the industry.


We have more data to prove that there’s a lack of diversity (e.g. the Diamond survey).

This week we have Black To Front on Channel 4, which proved that there is so much Black talent out there (and demand for Black fronted shows).


The problem is a lot of this work is being done by the people it directly affects, instead of the people already in positions of privilege. That needs to change.


But the conversations are happening, and while the change from the top is still unacceptably slow, more and more people are realising that abusive working practices and a lack of diversity (across gender, sexuality, race, class, disability, age) are not in fact just par for the course and we can absolutely demand better. And the more people who are interested in changing the industry, the faster it’ll happen. But we all have to take responsibility for driving it (when we are able) for that to happen.


In the past it has been impossible to speak out against inequality at work. Help Equality Check change that by taking 2 minutes to leave an anonymous review of your workplace. Your voice is powerful. Be #SeenAndHeard






About the author:


Cecilia McAloon

Cecilia has a double first in English Language & Literature from the University of Oxford. Before joining Equality Check, Cecilia co-founded an award-winning film production group and worked at the Oxford University Filmmaking Foundation. Cecilia has a long-held passion for ED&I and hopes that her work at Equality Check will have a lasting impact on creating equal opportunities for the UK workforce.





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