By Cecilia McAloon
I first met Charlotte Jones as an undergraduate when she spoke at my university on the difficulties of being a woman in the creative industries: “sometimes men and women are drawn to different types of stories and sometimes men's stories are seen as more important than women's stories.” It’s an issue that Jones has spoken about many times, but she finds that as a writer, “you don't always feel like you're flourishing a sword to try and change the world”. Inspired by her words, I began searching for a way to make an impact, a way to ‘flourish my sword’. Two years later, I’m launching #SeenAndHeard with Equality Check UK to raise awareness for gender inequality in the arts. As part of this campaign, I’m speaking to Jones once again to find out just why men’s stories are seen as more important than women’s and how to end that.
Charlotte Jones has been a writer of film, television, and theatre for 30 years. In the first few years of her career, Jones’ play ‘Humble Boy’ premiered at the National Theatre, was nominated for an Olivier award, and won the People’s Choice and Critics’ Circle Best New Play Award. Because of her success, Jones admits, “I naively thought there wouldn't be any barriers to me succeeding. I never thought about gender inequality. I never compared myself to men.” It’s only now, in her fifties, looking back on her career that Jones realises there was prejudice at work, “it was more difficult because I was a woman”.
“Because being a writer is quite solitary, I don't tend to meet other writers that often. I think I had assumed that they probably had an easier ride than I had. But, through little talks with them, I've realised that they're still very angry about the way it is for women. When we started, there wasn't a theatrical canon that included many women, it just didn't exist - there was Caryl Churchill and Aphra Behn. So when my plays were critiqued at the beginning, they were always trying to work out if what I was writing was original or not and to do that they had to compare me to Tom Stoppard. I think that critics are harder on women. Your first play is allowed to be a success but if your second play is not as successful then it's harder to get commissioned for a third play whereas I think sometimes male playwrights get a bit more of a free pass round that. Maybe the men have found it slightly easier to sustain a career in the theatre whereas the women have had to diversify and do other things in order to earn a living. So in the way that our work is received, there are subtle differences, I think.”
So what is it about men’s stories that makes them more acceptable than women’s? In general, the men are writing “plays about power politics, plays which are white colonial versions of the world. They’re not writing plays that are particularly emotional, but that has been the zeitgeist in theatre for a long time.” I could probably count on one hand the number of female writers I studied while doing my English degree, one of them being Aphra Behn. So when Jones says that that has been the zeitgeist in theatre for a long time, I begin to think that she could well mean centuries.
Being a woman writing in theatre, a “traditionally male stronghold” (her words), isn’t easy. “I've never felt that I was writing within the zeitgeist. But I do know that I touch audiences and I do know that things I have written have made a difference to people's lives, but sometimes real critical approval has been more elusive and that's hard.” “You know, I still find it hard when I hear about ‘so and so playwright (a successful man) has got another play on somewhere else’, you just think, ‘what do I have to do to be heard?’”.
I should note here that Jones is very grateful for her “enchanted life” spent writing stories. Growing up, writing wasn’t something that was ever on the horizon for Jones. Jones is from a culturally working-class background, her father was a second-hand car salesman and no one in her family had been to university. “I've ploughed a path that no one else in my family could possibly have done. But you know that's why I think it's very vocational, it's just in you really.” “I'm a storyteller that is who I am.” Being a writer, “it took me a long time to even be able to say that, it felt a bit pretentious. So I've been on my own personal journey of finding self-worth and believing in what I was doing myself.”
Jones’ success puts her in the 5% of writers who can actually earn a living through writing, “but it hasn’t been plain sailing”. Although she didn’t initially notice the systemic sexism at work in the way that her work was received, “it became most obvious to me working in TV”. According to Jones, TV can be a really high-stress, high-pressure environment, there’s lots of money involved and there are “ferocious deadlines”. On top of that, television has traditionally been run by white men. “TV is the only place where I've had an experience where I felt like I was bullied and gaslit and, in fact, where I was replaced by a male writer. That was a really, really difficult experience for me. I knew because it had never happened to me before and never happened to me since that it wasn't me, but it was still a really soul-crushing experience to go through.” And, “I do know that I'm not the only writer who's gone through situations like that.”
Nowadays Jones has moved away from television and is deliberately working for a theatre that's run by a woman. She has also been working in film for the better part of the last decade. But the film industry is no picnic for women either. Only 12.5% of films made in the last few years were written by women (it’s actually worse than television). Even so, Jones finds film “a slightly gentler environment that suits my way of working more”. “For me I think it takes a lot of energy to smash through a glass ceiling. It also takes a lot of energy to be creative and to write stories that are important. And now I'm in my fifties and I just want to work with the people who respect what I do and what I bring to the table.”
Jones’ advice to young writers is this: “write the stories that you want to write. That's the most important thing. I think we need to just keep writing women's stories and talking about the things we want to talk about and not just start writing stories that we think are going to get greenlit because men like them. I think you write better when you're being true to your own voice.” “It's being unapologetic about who we are and valuing our stories and being prepared to say that these stories are important and these stories deserve to be heard.”
“If I'm really honest I think there's still a lot of work to be done to get equality.” Statistics are proving that it is, in fact, harder to be a woman in the creative industries. Data is proving that men’s stories actually are valued more highly than women’s stories. But, Jones finds that “because we’re not a minority, women are a majority, I sometimes feel like our voices can be less insistent”. And on top of that, “being a freelance writer you can feel quite unprotected”. You might think: “‘it's just your employer for this one gig, and this gig might last six months, you can probably put up with bad behaviour because it's only six months,’ but actually, it can be incredibly debilitating.”
Speaking out is never easy. Jones admires the two girls who recently stood up at Left Bank and spoke about their experience of being sexually assaulted by a producer, “it was incredibly brave of them because television companies are very hierarchical and you get to know where the power lies.” It’s impossible to address these issues if you can’t raise them but if you raise them you’re out of a job. My hope is that Equality Check will be the change that the industry needs on that front.
I describe Equality Check’s project to Jones: using their platform to offer people a way to safely and anonymously speak out against workplace inequality. I ask her whether she thinks it will be effective in freelance industries like film, TV, and theatre. “Anonymously, that's the first step, isn't it? I think people have to feel safe to be able to say something and, in this climate, everyone wants to keep their job. So, I think a platform where you feel safe and anonymous is a really good idea. At the same time, there are people who are becoming whistle-blowers and talking more publicly and I think as a consequence people in power are becoming more afraid of being exposed as being aggressive in working conditions so I think it's all for the good.” “I think it's got to reach a critical mass, hasn't it? Because there's so many different people like ERA, like this. Everyone is saying the same thing and so I think it's a snowball effect. Hopefully it's going to get easier and easier for women working in film, TV, and theatre.” “It definitely is improving but as you see it improve you realise the work that needs to be done.”
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 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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