Inspirational Woman: Ruth Wrigley | BAFTA & Emmy Award-Winning Producer, Writer & Director

Meet Ruth Wrigley

Award-winning Producer, Writer & Director

Ruth Wrigley is a BAFTA and Emmy award-winning producer, writer and director. She is responsible for working on, delivering and creating some of TVs most groundbreaking, innovative and genre defining shows including Big Brother, The Only Way Is Essex, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria and Big Breakfast.

Ruth is a renowned trailblazer and has been at forefront of the broadcast arena for over four decades. Her extensive background in TV has seen her work at All3Media as a key integral creative, been Head of Entertainment Events at the BBC as well as Head of Entertainment and Factual Entertainment at Endemol, Freemantle, Talkback Thames and Celador Productions. Ruth is an un-matched creative force that is known for her groundbreaking flair for broadcast innovation that has helped shape modern day culture as we know it today.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I am a double BAFTA and Emmy award winning television producer, responsible for some of Britain’s most iconic and innovative shows: programmes that helped change and shape celebrity culture as we know it. I now work as an executive consultant, and am writing a book based on my career and experiences as a single working mum running the biggest shows on TV.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not really. I like to think I am a true creative and entrepreneur – which means I am always looking to do something new and different. That makes it hard to have a plan because I never know what is around the corner. My “plan” has always been to be brave and take risks on things I really believe in – whatever they may be. Before I left school, I knew I wanted to be a journalist, but was categorically told “there are no jobs for journalists” by a career adviser at my suburban comprehensive school. She told me to get a job in a bank! But I didn’t want to work in a bank so fought hard to get the job and training I wanted on a large provincial newspaper. When I finally made it to Fleet Street, however, I found the misogynistic culture there (in the early 80s) intolerable, so changed direction and found work in television on a show I really loved. I had no real ambition to work in TV, I was just drawn the that show ( The Six O’Clock Show made by London Weekend Television for ITV) because it was so different from anything else I had seen, and luckily for me they were looking for local journalists to train as researchers. I did well and was promoted rising through the ranks as a producer and director in both entertainment and documentary. It was all going so well – until I dared to have a baby!

In terms of my career development after starting a family, I left the corporate world of TV and worked as a freelancer – always taking the school holidays off. I took jobs on shows that I admired or thought were challenging and different. I have always been drawn to things that are daring and innovative, and LIVE (hence my two stints on The Big Breakfast!). I did lots of big successful entertainment shows (and of course some that weren’t so successful!) but it was Big Brother that turbo-charged my career because it was so ground breaking. I was the executive producer of the first three iconic series of Big Brother and Celebrity Big Brother. People forget that the first series was broadcast at 11 pm at night on Channel Four, “an interesting social experiment”. It wasn’t expected to get an audience. Because of that I had a lot of creative freedom (the men in suits were not that interested) and as a result, under my leadership with a fantastic team in tow, it became the biggest hit the channel has ever had and changed television forever!

After that, and being awarded my first BAFTA, I could pick and choose where I worked. My experience running Big Brother piqued my interest in marrying TV with the fast-developing world of the internet and social media and I began to formulate an idea which eventually became TOWIE (The Only Way Is Essex)– and no one could plan for that! 

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Yes. My first challenge was that careers adviser, who told me I couldn’t be a journalist. I was a working-class girl in a so-so comprehensive school and there were no expectations that I would do much beyond getting married and having a baby despite the fact that I was bright and doing well at school. So other peoples ‘expectations of me, based solely on my sex and my class, have always put barriers in my way – when there really was no need!

The other major challenge I faced was when I started a family and still wanted to work. I just wanted what the boys had – a family life and to continue with the career I loved. I was told, by a man with two children and no sense of irony, that I couldn’t work in TV and have children and I am shocked to discover that this attitude still prevails today – 30 years on – in many industries, not just TV, even if, by law, it can no longer be so overt. It’s still happening and it needs to stop.

As a working woman I really didn’t come across a lot of prejudice (sexism and misogyny – yes, but I never really felt discriminated against.) I was good at my job and that was recognized and I was rewarded.

When I had a baby all that changed. The whole system seemed to work against me and not help me in anyway. It is hard juggling work and kids – very hard- but most working women know how they can make it work – it’s just that no one is listening to them – listening to what they really need and really want – nor is their contribution valued, rather, it is resented.

Businesses that support working mums thrive. Those that don’t, flounder. I will go out of my way to employ women with kids because they’re committed and efficient and will work harder than anyone else. There’s no faffing (because they always have somewhere else to be and their multi-tasking and negotiating skills are second to none (if you can negotiate with a two-year-old – a CEO is easy).

If I had been a man and a dad, I know I would have had a far less bumpy ride. I hoped things would be different for my daughters (who are now both working mums) but I am saddened to find that not that much has really changed. I do everything I can to help young working women understand their worth and have confidence to ask for what they want and to make things work for them. The system is built for men by men – it doesn’t work for so well women – and once they understand that, it gives them the confidence to ask for change.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

Outside my family, my biggest achievement was successfully developing and delivering that first series of Big Brother, for which I won a BAFTA for innovation. The show had been on in Holland and Germany, but on much smaller channels, and what I did was develop a way of making the show more compelling (in terms of story-telling), more entertaining, and a much bigger live event than anything that had gone before. After the British version hit the screens, other countries that optioned the format across the globe, adopted our way of doing things.

When something is a runaway success, it’s easy to forget that someone had to fight hard to make it happen. With anything new and different there are always a lot of naysayers and risk averse money men trying to hold you back. It takes a lot of guts and a lot of energy to get people on side and to believe in you. So, I am immensely proud of the team that accompanied me on my first Big Brother journey. Many gave up good safe jobs and took a risk on me and that show. It paid off, and many are key players in TV today in this country and in America. I couldn’t have done it without them.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Having a stable, loving family life and supportive father who believed my sisters and I could do or be anything we wanted to be. He is probably the most unchauvinistic man I have ever known and that has given me and my two sisters immense confidence and an ability to thrive at the top in what are still, essentially male dominated worlds. (One of my sisters is a lawyer, the other works at a very senior level at Eton)

I believe you make your own luck, so apart from simple hard graft and boundless energy, my superpower is that I don’t really care what other people think of me (outside of my immediate family). Most people do things because they want to be liked and want to please. That is not what drives me. If I believe something is right, or indeed if something is wrong, I am willing to stick my neck out and speak out. I am brave and I am principled and I work hard for the things I believe in. That means that I am not always popular. Sometimes I fall flat on my face, (I have been wrong on many occasions – but again I don’t care what other people think about that and I always learn from my mistakes). I take risks where others won’t because if I pull it off I can fly high and do things on my own terms. When I left home to go to London aged 20, my dad told me – if it doesn’t work out, you can always come home – and for me that wasn’t such a bad thing, so I took chances when they arose. If I was a man, people would say I had real balls!

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored someone or are you someone’s mentee?

I think mentoring is a great and very important tool for women in the workplace, helping them to successfully navigate systems that don’t always understand their needs.I have been a mentor for NESTA – a government agency dedicated to promoting social good – a healthy life, fairer starts and a sustainable future, all things I believe passionately in. With NESTA I mentored young women entrepreneurs starting their own businesses in these arenas. I have also done some mentoring for BAFTA as part of a scheme to encourage upcoming creative talent and ,before the pandemic hit , I did a lot of work in China and found I was  a popular choice as mentor among young female media students there , who were impressed that I had a family as well as a career, something they aspire to but which is virtually impossible to achieve over there.

I have never been formally mentored but would like to be! I have a couple of very successful, straight talking female friends who help and advise me from time to time – and of course there’s my sisters!

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If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for gender equality, what would it be?

I would like to see a massive head shift in attitudes towards women in the work place, especially when it comes to working mothers. We need to genuinely value, appreciate and support them. Their knowledge, their skill set and experience are invaluable and we are poorer for letting them go. And yet we do, time and time again.

At present women are still made to feel lesser for wanting to have a family and a career. Men are congratulated and promoted for wanting the same. This just doesn’t make sense and it is not fair.

Giving birth to the next generation is probably the most important job anyone can do. Women (biologically) have to do this, and in most cases, also take on the lion’s share of all the domestic stuff that goes with it. Many are expected to do all this AND go back to work. Hooray for them – how lucky to have these amazing women in our workforce. And yet it doesn’t feel like that as a working mum.

What they do is not really valued or appreciated, especially by those who control the corporate world. Things are certainly not made easy for women when they try to re- enter the workplace after having kids. Again, they are just expected to slot back into what is a predominately male world and male way of doing things. It doesn’t work for them and many end up leaving a job they loved because it is all too much. They are subtly made to feel lesser, looked down upon because they’ve got kids. How can they be totally committed to work? They are seen as part-timers, often because they manage to do their job in four days a week instead of five so they can also spend time with their kids. They should be applauded for this. They are fabulous, efficient, hard-working. Instead they find that they are no longer on the promotion trajectory no matter how good they are or how hard they work. 

This is why there needs to be a head shift – and absolute change in attitude and culture. I read somewhere recently that the reduction of women to something less than men and the elevation of men to something more than women is not biological – its cultural. “It starts with pink and blue and everything skyrockets out of control from there.” We need to change the way we think about working mothers. Most know exactly how to make work work for them – but at the moment not enough people are listening, or willing to take their needs into account. If this attitude changed, the rest would follow. 

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

Trust yourself and always ask for what you want. You might not always get it – but if that happens someone has to give you a reason and explain why and you will learn something.In all aspects of life women tend to be more backwards in coming forward than men, especially when it comes to blowing their own trumpet and knowing their value. When they are young they are talked down to, “shushed” and patronized almost every day.  It’s that cultural thing again. And it takes its toll.

I have been in many a business meeting when a woman has put her hand up and started a sentence with “I am really sorry but I have a suggestion, sorry, it’s probably nothing, but …. “and then explained some amazing brilliant thought, idea, or solution to whatever the problem is. Men in the room will rarely praise that woman, and some will even nick that idea and try to pass it off as their own (that’s happened to me on more than one occasion). So, know your worth, be confident and take credit where credit is due. If you don’t’ someone else will.

Women are also far less likely to ask for a pay rise – why? Don’t they think they’re worth it? I know I never asked for one until I found out that my male deputy was being paid more than me for a lesser role. At first, I got upset. What had I done wrong? Why was he getting more? I must be crap. Then I thought – no – that’s not it. He probably just asked for that money and they paid it, hoping I would never find out. I was angry and I asked for much more money than he was getting. I said if I didn’t get it I would leave. I meant it and I was worth it. I got the pay rise. 

My daughter found herself in a similar situation recently, and was so upset she said she was going to quit. I told her if that was the case, and if she was willing to leave if things didn’t change, then she was in an incredibly powerful position. “How so,” she said, between the tears. “What you want is not unreasonable. It’s fair and you’re worth it, so ask for exactly what you want. If it’s not forthcoming, leave because it’s not what you want, it’s not worth your while. You are comfortable with either outcome, so its win win.”She put her case and got exactly what she wanted, was promoted and earnt massive respect from her new boss. She could have walked out, confidence knocked and never known her true worth if she hadn’t asked.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

My most immediate challenge is centred around my book that I’m working on. I plan to use it as a tool to inspire and mentor young women in the workplace, particularly working mums. I also hope it will start a much-needed conversation and shift in attitude towards working mothers and how they are viewed and treated. Until that happens, until their needs and wants are met, there will never be an equality in the workplace and by now there really should be.

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