WIF proves safe haven in fight against sexism

When it comes to combating sexist behavior in the entertainment industry, Women in Film’s efforts are fourfold: It supports women simply through its existence; challenges Old Boy attitudes through letters and phone calls; re-educates women to professionally help each other; and empowers the next generation of young women through speaking engagements at local schools.

“All of us have had that hand on our backsides or shoulders and the innuendos and insinuating comments,” says WIF executive director Harriet Silverman.

“It doesn’t have to be a zipper pulled down or someone thrown on the floor. It’s far more subtle and aggravating over a long period of time.

“A lot of women are so frightened of losing employment that they tolerate it and think the rest of us haven’t gone through it.

“Once when I was speaking at an executive networking lunch, I asked for a show of hands of people who had experienced sexual harassment on the job,” says Silverman.

“In that room of 250 highly placed executives, I think there were two or three women who did not raise their hands. That indicates something.”

In establishing a professional community of women, WIF offers a safe haven for expressing those fears. “The biggest benefit of being a member is the support system that’s offerred by sharing frustrations and brainstorming ways of dealing with them,” says Betsy Pollock, a line producer and first assistant director who co-chairs WIF’s Public Service Announcements Committee.

“To sit in the same room with powerful women who have broken barriers is so hard to come by and a very powerful experience.”

Not to mention a sobering one, considering some of the attitudes she’s encountered in her male-dominated profession. “Once, in an interview for an assistant directing job, I was asked, ‘What will you do if the teamsters won’t follow your directions?,’ which was a blantantly sexist question,” she says.

“My philosophy is: When you hire a crew, they’re there to work. If you’re doing your job, it will enable them to do theirs. I’ve had no experiences of sexist behavior from crews that I’ve had from management.”

When WIF’s existence proves too subtle, the organization and its members more actively update archaic social mores. “I recently approached a producer about why he did not use more women,” says Silverman. “He said, ‘Well, I’m really comfortable with my own crew.’ I said, ‘Well, then get uncomfortable. We’re not here at work to be comfortable.’ ”

Adds Laura Medina, a film director, line producer and production manager, as well as P.S.A. Committee co-chair, “Women helping women is a way of breaking down barriers. When I’m working as a line producer and the producer and director are hiring key positions, I make it my goal to have them consider women. Saying it makes a difference.”

Just as men are having to be retrained to respect women’s abilities, so too are women, who often decline to help each other out of jealousy and competition. To that end, WIF has established and is strengthening its mentoring program, which pairs more experienced women with up-and-comers to offer advice, support and career guidance.

“Male bonding is simply a function of the culture,” says William Morris Agency senior VP Joan Hyler, who is also executive VP of WIF’s board of directors. “If they didn’t bond in battle, they’d be dead. Women had different functions relative to what men were doing. But now, we’re on the front lines together. We need to re-encode ourselves to pass on the mantle of power to each other. We must develop more staying power to have longevity with dignity. The only way to do this is to make sure we protect each other.”

And, finally, because subliminal messages of female inferiority begin in youth, WIF is also sponsoring a program through its Girls Empowerment Committee in which members will speak at local schools and engage in mentoring programs with students to instill feelings of self-esteem and empowerment.

In related concerns WIF Issues and Advocacy Committee tackles issues of ageism, sexism, violence and women, while WIF International plans to combat the dual prejudice against foreign women, who must also weather negative publicity surrounding immigration. And more high finance seminars, such as how to raise money for films, will acquaint women with an area they have traditionally avoided.

“Women have to continue to educate themselves and gain more strength in the money areas of the industry, because that’s where the power is,” says WIF founder and president emeritus Tichi Wilkerson Kassell. “Look at women in abusive situations. What keeps them tied to them is finances. So it is with Women in Film. With financial strength comes independence. If we’re not in control of finances, it keeps us prisoners.”

WIF’s next obstacle in this arena may be overseas. With the rapid expansion of American films into the highly lucrative international market, WIF may be called upon to handle the rampant sexism in both foreign cultures and exported product — male-oriented action pictures, which usually star and are directed by men and often poorly depict women.

WIF may soon face the dilemma of figuring out how to cash in on this facet of the business without selling out its ideals.

“We have to look for projects in the action-adventure genre that feature women in positive roles,” says Ellen Little, the president of Overseas Film Group/First Look Pictures and a 10-year WIF member. “That way we can tap the market without exploiting women.”

Tackling such issues is getting easier by virtue of WIF’s burgeoning ranks. Says Hyler, “There’s safety and victory in numbers.”

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