In 2022, in honour of International Women’s Day, we looked at the state of gender diversity in broadcast technology. The consensus of the interviewees was that although the industry had made progress, there was more that needed to be done. One year on, we are revisiting the topic with a view to see if perceptions have changed in the last twelve months.
The three women interviewed represent a broad spectrum of roles within the industry. Carrie Wootten is the Managing Director of Rise, an organisation whose goal is to support the broadcast industry in creating a diverse and gender balanced workforce within the areas of engineering, technical operations, sales, marketing, and business. Judy Parnall is the Head of Standards & Industry for BBC R&D and served for four years as the Chair of the Technical Committee for the EBU. Ruth MacLaren is a Senior Broadcast Engineer at the BBC, and recently spent several months as Acting Team Leader for the engineering operations team in London.
Progress one year on
Although 12 months is just a brief flash compared to the 100+ year history of broadcasting, Carrie Wootten has seen improvement in that time. “The conversation has changed dramatically,” she said. “It is much more positive around gender representation. A lot of companies want to take action. But as always, there’s pressure on the other demands of running companies in terms of profit and loss. And we are in a tricky time economically. We have seen redundancies and as a result, issues like diversity and sustainability sometimes get lost. However, people understand the importance of diverse talent coming through and initiatives like the Rise Up Academy have received a lot of support, but we’re still not there yet. I long for the day that we are.”
Judy Parnall has seen improvements at the BBC. “In technical roles at all levels, and particularly at senior levels, there’s definitely been an increase in the number of women coming in,” she said. “I think there’s been some real focus and emphasis on trying to improve that, I think there is a will to make a difference.”
She believes that the recent dramatic changes in the technologies used in broadcasting have played a major role. “I think the move to from the more traditional hard engineering roles to more IT-related roles had led to more software engineering coming in, and I think you’ve got more women wanting to move into that area,” she said.
“There’s been quite a bit of focus on retraining as well. Getting more focus on women who have come out of school having studied something completely different and then studying to move towards a software engineering role.”
Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President of the Children’s Defence Fund encapsulated the importance of role models in improving diversity when she said, “you can’t be what you can’t see.” All of the women interviewed for this and last year’s articles strongly stressed the importance the visibility of women in senior technology roles in terms of encouraging women to consider a career in broadcast technology.
Parnall has seen improved representation of women in technology at the BBC. “Having Storm Fagan as Head of Product - she’s very much held up as someone aspirational, someone successful, someone who’s has a lot of respect for the way she is, and the way she behaves as a senior manager. And a lot of her direct reports are women. That has definitely helped,” she said. “And Sinéad Greenaway, Director, Broadcast & End User Technology, is one of the CTO’s direct reports. You’re seeing more and more women coming through to that level. The new Head of News operations is a woman. There are some key women scattered all throughout the organisation and not just on the content side or the HR side, which is where you always tend to see women.”
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In her role at the EBU Parnall has seen improved representation throughout the industry. “There are a few female CTOs now, RTBF in Belgium has a woman CTO,” she said. But she makes it clear that there is still a long way to go. “Then again, there aren’t that many.”
One step forward, two steps back
Despite the improvements seen in terms of corporate diversity initiatives and more women in senior technology roles, there have been a few setbacks in practical terms.
Ruth MacLaren’s broadcast engineering team at the BBC lost half eight of its 15 members over the past year, two of them women. “All of the replacement staff have been male,” she reports. “And that’s because no women have applied.” That leaves a total of two women on the team.
The EBU has experienced similar tribulations. “We have still struggled,” said Parnall. “I stepped down as the Chair of the technical committee last year, and it is now all male again.”
Carrie Wootten is cautiously optimistic but believes that more needs to be done. “I think it’s starting to happen, we’ve got some amazing women and senior leaders across the industry, but not enough,” she said. “When you look at events and speaker line-ups, that isn’t always the case. “There was an event a couple of weeks ago where the line-up was 98% male. Event organisers still need to be thinking about the gender representation and ethnic representation that’s on stage.”
Support systems are important in the workplace, and mentorship, both formal and informal can make a powerful difference in the lives of women in the industry. “I have a mentor at work, and I am now a mentor,” said MacLaren. “There’s a woman on the apprenticeship programme that I was on. She’s in a year group where she is the only woman. That shouldn’t be a ‘thing.’ But there might be things that are different for her as a woman in the role that people don’t realise in the first place. So, if I can be of any help to her, that’s great.”
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Parnall emphasises the need for support systems that go beyond traditional forms of mentorship. “We need to find allies who boost each other and encourage each other to give things a go,” she said. “I’ve got colleagues who do that for me. And sometimes if I know I need to be pushed into doing something, I’ll ask one of them to make me accountable to them and hold me to doing it for my own career development. Rather than it being just about my manager who will hold me accountable for things that I have to deliver. And that can be incredibly helpful.”
Wootten spoke of the tremendous demand for female mentors. “Rise’s mentoring programme in the UK had quadruple the number of applications last year for the amount of available places,” she said. “We’re turning away three quarters of the women who apply because we don’t have the funding to be able to support all of them which is heart-breaking. Women in the industry need the support and we need to invest more to ensure that we have we retain that talent and attract that talent as well.”
The lack of women applicants is one of the biggest obstacles to increasing gender diversity within broadcast technology. “We’ve got to ensure that we have that pipeline coming through if we’re going to see the diversity of our industry change,” said Wootten.
Work-related problems faced by women are not always restricted to the workplace. MacLaren was involved in the most recent hiring process for her team and has an insight regarding the lack of female candidates. “I’ve had discussions with management about why we’re only getting male applicants,” she said.
“Why is it that women seem to be moving to jobs where they can either work from home, or have a bit more flexibility around coming in or not during shifts? It was quite obvious to me - going home at the end of my late shift after any major sporting event, it’s just carnage, there are people shouting rude things. So why would a woman choose not to work a shift-based job if they could, because we don’t feel safe getting home. I think that was something neither my manager nor their manager had considered because it’s never been a problem for them.”
Wootten knows that there’s no lack of talent out there. “This is where I do get a bit frustrated,” she said. “We know that there’s diverse talent out there in the world. It’s everywhere. I see it when I go into schools, I see it with young people, I see it with young adults, I see it in every aspect of life. There is amazing, diverse talent out there that can bring lots of skills and abilities to our industry. But it’s going to take investment. And that does mean it means cash in these initiatives, and it needs leadership. “It’s going to take a huge momentum to make that change happen.”