Why Are Women In Film Stuck? — Commentary by Martha M. Lauzen — Exclusive to AWFJ

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Martha Lauzen

Martha Lauzen

Women working in the film industry are stuck.

According to the latest Celluloid Ceiling study, women comprised only 16% of all directors, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films of 2013. This figure is actually one percentage point lower than in 1998! Read on…

These immutable statistics beg the question, why haven’t the percentages of women working in key behind-the-scenes roles improved over the last decade and a half?

The answer can be found, at least in part, in the misdiagnoses of the causes of women’s under-employment that divert attention from more pervasive antecedents, and the tangle of cultural mores and rampant job insecurity that encourage silence and inaction by industry leaders.

When bloggers and industry panels discuss the issue of women’s under-employment, the participants frequently and understandably seek out what might be considered rational solutions.

The “pipeline model of employment” provides a good example of this type of approach. Using this metaphor, advocates for change argue that if there were more women in the pipeline, eventually more women would have careers in the film industry.

However, the employment process in the film industry is rarely value-neutral or gender-blind as this model suggests. The pipeline is often shorter and more direct for male filmmakers than for their female counterparts. Moreover, every indicator of women’s interest in and readiness for employment shows that they are available in ample numbers to work in a variety of behind-the-scenes roles.

Women comprise one-third to more than one-half of students in top film schools around the country. In genres and venues that are more welcoming of women, their numbers skyrocket. Women account for 39% of directors working on documentaries screening at high-profile film festivals around the country, according to the latest Independent Women study, a far cry from the paltry 6% working on top grossing films documented in the latest Celluloid Ceiling report.

Women’s under-employment is not the result of an anemic pipeline but rather, pervasive and deeply held perceptions that women are uninterested in or unable to helm large-budget features.

Thus, the pipeline model presents a rational, though deeply flawed, solution to what is in large part a problem created by less-than-rational judgments about women’s talents and abilities. When various industry groups funnel resources, time, and energy into pipeline fixes, it diverts attention away from difficult but ultimately more damaging root causes of the problem.

In addition, there has been a profound lack of leadership on the part of those holding powerful positions at the major studios and guilds.

Despite the growing cacophony of grassroots voices speaking about women’s under-employment, the industry’s most powerful individuals have, for the most part, remained silent or sidestepped any meaningful discussion of the dearth of women working behind the scenes. However, in a remarkably candid interview with Forbes magazine last year, Sony co-chair Amy Pascal noted, “the whole system is geared for [women] to fail.” Her comments were surprising in that they acknowledged the systemic failure of the studios to more fully integrate women into the business. In so doing, Pascal criticized the industry’s male-centric culture, a move not commonly made by individuals in highly visible and often tenuous positions.

Similarly, recent blogs by director Lexi Alexander and others have suggested that union leaders have failed to adequately represent their female members. Although the major unions regularly produce and distribute demographic breakdowns of their members and the amount of employment garnered by those members, the blogs maintain that union leaders are reluctant to advocate on women’s behalf for fear of alienating their predominantly male membership. In effect, Hollywood’s leaders have been effectively silenced by the unfortunate combination of cultural expectations and their own job insecurity.

Given these realities, how might the percentages of women working in powerful behind-the-scenes roles increase?

Optimists may survey the current situation and suggest that with time and sufficient grassroots pressure, the powers-that-be in the film industry will eventually acknowledge women’s under-employment as a problem and move to correct the inequities with more substantial practices than the current assortment of shadowing and mentorship programs. Glass half-full types might also believe that industry decision makers will eventually be persuaded by the mounting evidence indicating that greater diversity leads to increased profits. Pessimists, on the other hand, might consider the employment data, as well as Hollywood’s past disinclination for change, and surmise that women’s underrepresentation may only be remedied through the courts or intervention by some government agency that would set measurable goals, establish an objective oversight body, and institute penalties for non-compliance.

In either case, when one considers the dynamics of the industry, one is not left wondering why women’s employment has remained stagnant for more than a decade but rather at how steadfastly these forces have maintained the status quo.

Dr. Martha M. Lauzen serves as the executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film (http://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu) and on the film and television faculty at San Diego State University. The Center conducts an extensive agenda of original research on women working on screen and behind the scenes in film and television. Lauzen is the author of annual studies of women working in film (The Celluloid Ceiling) and television (Boxed In), as well as numerous articles examining women’s employment patterns and representation. She is a member of the Board of Advisers of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.

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