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Mission Possible? Ending Gender Discrimination Against Female Directors in Hollywood

The marginalization of women in Hollywood has gotten a lot of attention lately.  The Sony hacking scandal revealed glaring gender disparities in pay among movie stars and studio executives alike, and Patricia Arquette’s controversial Oscar acceptance speech demanded wage equality for women. Now the spotlight has shifted to the discrimination faced by female directors, after the ACLU publicly urged intervention by the federal agency charged with enforcing employment discrimination laws.

The number of women who manage to break through and direct television and film is astoundingly low.  Just 14% of television episodes from the 2013-2014 season were directed by women, according to a study of 225 series performed by the Directors Guild of America.  The numbers are even worse for film.  Only 4.6 percent of major studio films in 2014 were directed by women, including just 1.9 percent of the 100 top-grossing films last year.

Studio executives defend the status quo by claiming there aren’t enough talented women out there, but the fact is that women represent about half of the students at the country’s top film schools, including 51% of graduate students at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and 46% of students at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.  Even women who garner critical acclaim for their work have trouble getting noticed by the big studios.  As Jessica P. Ogilvie recently reported in an LA Weekly, “After competing at Sundance and other big festivals, the men who win awards are often tapped to direct for the Big Six: Disney, Universal, Warner Bros., Paramount, Sony, and 20th Century Fox.  But Big Six studio executives seem to ignore the award-winning female filmmakers, rarely inviting them to direct a picture.”

The ACLU interviewed or collected information from 50 female directors and came up with an explanation for the lack of female directors: gender discrimination.  On May 12, 2015, the ACLU sent a fifteen-page letter to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission detailing the many practices that result in the exclusion or underemployment of female directors.  The practices described by the ACLU include: overt bars on hiring women (multiple directors report being told that certain executives just don’t hire women), sex stereotyping (women directors get steered into projects that are considered “women oriented,” like romantic comedies), quotas for female directors (for example, selecting women to direct no more than one television episode out of a 13 or 22 episode season), and discriminatory recruiting methods (including picking directors based on short lists that disproportionately exclude female candidates).

The ACLU requested that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission launch an investigation into the gender discrimination faced by female directors.  There’s precedent for that kind of call to arms.  In the 1960s and 1970s, the EEOC investigated discrimination against women in the entertainment industry, and in the early 1980s, female directors brought suit for gender discrimination.  As the Sony hacking scandal made clear, discrimination against women in Hollywood, both subtle and overt, will continue to fester without significant oversight, transparency, and accountability.

Alexandra Harwin

Alexandra Harwin

Ali Harwin has been working on protecting the rights of women for her entire career, most recently in the NY office of Sanford Heisler, LLP. Before focusing on employment discrimination matters, Ali worked in family law and in economic policy research. Ali loves to write, and loves even more her husband and her child and the attendant adventures in egalitarian parenting that come with that love.

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