The Fight for Women to Call the Shots in Hollywood

The fight over the director’s chair in Hollywood is heating up. ktsdesign/Shutterstock.com

At a recent lunch with a studio executive, he told me matter-of-factly that most women weren’t interested in directing blockbusters.

“They’re more interested in telling personal stories,” he said. “They don’t want to sell out.”

Maybe the executive, who I won’t name, thought that what he was saying was a compliment. But I would wager that there are plenty of women in Hollywood willing to queue up to “sell out” for the prestige and paycheck that comes with directing a superhero flick or broad comedy backed by a major studio.

Hollywood is facing scrutiny for failing to live up to its own liberal ideals when it comes to gender equality. There are so few female directors that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has asked state and federal agencies to investigate the hiring practices of studios, networks and talent agencies for the “systemic failure to hire women directors at all levels of the film and television industry.”

“Blatant and extreme gender inequality in this large and important industry is shameful and unacceptable,” Melissa Goodman, director of ACLU SoCal’s LGBTQ, Gender & Reproductive Justice Project, said at the launch of the campaign. “The time has come for new solutions to this serious civil rights problem.”

So who called in the ACLU?

“A group of women directors came to the ACLU,” Ariela Migdal, ACLU senior staff attorney with the Women’s Rights Project, says. “The barriers they were describing to us where women get pushed to the side helped to explain or illuminate the very dire statistics that come out every year.”

And the stats are indeed very dire.

Sundance and Women in Film commissioned a report, released in April, that found the ratio of male- to female-directed movies in competition at the Sundance Film Festival from 2002 to 2014 was about 3 to 1. And something dramatic happens after a woman directs her first indie feature: nobody calls. For the top 1,300 highest-grossing films released from 2002 to 2014—many distributed by Hollywood studios—the ratio of male-to-female directors was more than 23 to 1.

Some of the shocking stereotypes that industry execs listed as reasons for the gap include:

  • 44 percent said female directors are perceived as making films for a subset and/or less significant portion of the marketplace
  • 42 percent blamed a scarcity of female directors and small pool from which to choose for top-grossing films
  • 25 percent cited women’s perceived lack of ambition in taking on directing jobs
  • 22 percent said the skewed representation of women in decision-making roles in the industry was a factor in limiting job opportunities for female directors
  • 12 percent claimed a belief that women “can’t handle” certain types of films or aspects of production, such as commanding a large crew

“The obvious thing is that there’s a gender imbalance in Hollywood,” Cathy Schulman, president of Women in Film, says of the research. “On the other hand, how profound that after all of this research and 30,000 data points, we discovered a gendered marketplace where potentially unconscious biases are actually preventing certain kinds of media being made or getting seen.”

The bias doesn’t stop once a woman is hired to helm a project. A blog started in April entitled “Shit People Say to Women Directors” has attracted hundreds of stories from anonymous industry veterans venting steam about comments they have overheard or received, which range from simply reinforcing gender stereotypes to outright harassment.  

“I once sat and listened to two male writer/EPs rank the ‘fuckability’ of the actresses on our show. It was a children’s show with a teenage cast,” wrote one anonymous woman director on the blog.

“While shadowing the director on a major network show, the DP [director of photography] asked if I wanted children,” recalled another director. “I think I said, ‘I didn’t think so, but I’m open to whatever life might bring.’ Then he said, ‘You should have a kid, and he can become a director.’ I stuttered something like, ‘But, I want to direct!’”

Another barrier to entry appears to the be “the lists.” To get hired in the business, a director’s name needs to appear on the kinds of lists that underlings make for their bosses. Not surprisingly, these lists tend to exclude women.

“I think there’s enough discrimination and bias built into the process and enough of these mechanisms like the shortlist system that keep women out,” Migdal says. “A version of it is they’ll say we need to have women, so they’ll give you a list that’s five guys and Kathryn Bigelow. Or sometimes the guys on it, there’ll be a young up-and-comer and he’s only directed one indie film, but it won an award. Well, there are plenty of women who’ve directed one indie film that won an award and they’re not getting on those lists.”  

So, why are women coming forward now? Maybe it’s the amount money they’ve put into their educations, the time they’ve spent on their reels or maybe it’s the proliferation of articles in major outlets giving them the confidence that they’re not alone in their experiences. Whatever the case, female directors from episodic television, cable, film, commercials and online content are coming forward with their stories, making it easier for organizations like the ACLU to take action.  

“We put up an intake mechanism on our website asking are you a women director? Have you been shut out? We received an outpouring from across different sectors of the industry,” says Migdal. “We were seeing multiple layers of discrimination and we were seeing it in different places.”

This is not the first time Tinseltown has felt the heat for its hiring practices. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission held hearings in the 1960s about Hollywood and requested intervention from the Justice Department. When the Justice Department found employment discrimination, a settlement was reached with the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers and several unions. There were a few weak measures put in place, which included employment referrals for minorities, although not specifically for women. It was no surprise when the measures did little to change hiring practices.

So far, the ACLU has contacted the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs and the California State Department of Fair Employment and Housing to see what action can be taken.

“What’s been going on in Hollywood is the sense that ‘We are immune from these laws,’” says Migdal. “Or, at least, that’s the way people behave with showrunners and producers openly saying ‘don’t send me any women for this job.’ Or ‘I really need someone who can handle a big budget or who can handle my crew.’”

But the concern goes further than whether or not a female director can do her job. Some people point out that executives fear for their own jobs if they take a risk on a woman and the film tanks, which happens frequently regardless of whether the director is male or female. While no one likes to get hired to fill a quota, some believe that affirmative action is the only way to edge toward equality.

“Executives or heads of studios [are] nervous and afraid because shareholders tend to get upset if a movie bombs—and in their mind, we [women] can only deliver bombs,” says “Punisher” director Lexi Alexander. Alexander has amassed 17,500 Twitter followers who engage with her on a daily basis about sexism in Hollywood.  

“Hiring women almost has to come with a protection clause, which in this case is a quota,” Alexander says. “So you won’t lose your job because you took a risk for the diversity cause.”

Others are pushing for the Rooney Rule, an NFL-wide commitment to consider people of color for head coaching positions. But Alexander doesn’t believe the Rooney Rule would go far enough.

“I’ve been pushing for the Rooney Rule for a while, but at this point we’re so far down the road, in a bad way, that I believe only a quota will do,” she says.

But lest you think Hollywood is full of men trying to keep women down, there are efforts to improve conditions that don’t involve lawsuits. Meryl Streep recently announced she would help finance a lab for female screenwriters over 40. Reese Witherspoon’s production company Pacific Standard is deliberately looking for more female-driven material after the company’s success with “Gone Girl” and “Wild.” Natalie Portman also insisted on a female director to oversee her performance for a Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic.

“I do think there are many people working in this industry who would like to see [the] dire numbers change,” says Migdal. “I think it’s possible that you would see the industry agree to certain reforms that would try to correct for these biases.”

Of course, those who don’t go willingly may have to face action from federal agencies. Many women who have spoken with the ACLU are more than willing to talk to investigators.

“In our experience, when these federal agencies weigh in and say a certain type of behavior is discriminatory and illegal, that makes a really big difference in how employers behave,” Migdal says. “Employers don’t want the federal government bringing enforcement action against them.”

In the meantime, the ACLU is considering its next steps. The organization’s website continues to maintain a portal for women who want to tell their stories and also has a petition anyone can sign to support the effort to put more women in the director’s chair.