The American Civil Liberties Union is exposing Hollywood’s gender gap. The organization is accusing the industry of discriminating against female directors through biased recruiting and hiring practices.
The ACLU is seeking a state and federal investigation into the hiring practices of Hollywood’s major studios, networks and talent agencies, which it deems a violation of civil rights.
“Women directors aren’t working on an even playing field and aren’t getting a fair opportunity to succeed,” said Melissa Goodman, director of the L.G.B.T., Gender and Reproductive Justice Project at the A.C.L.U. of Southern California. “Gender discrimination is illegal. And really Hollywood doesn’t get this free pass when it comes to civil rights and gender discrimination.”
Letters being sent to the commission, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing and the Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs detail evidence of systemic “overt sex stereotyping and implicit bias.” If the agencies find instances of bias, legal charges could be filed.
A University of Southern California study cited in the letter found that just 1.9% of the top-grossing 100 films from the last two years were directed by women. Meanwhile, a Directors Guild of America analysis revealed that a mere 14 percent of 220 television shows broadcast in 2013 and 2014 were helmed by women. Almost one-third of the shows, or 31%, had no women directing any of the episodes during the 2013-14 season.
Another USC study found in 2013 that the percentage of female characters speaking on screen dipped to a five-year low of 28.4% in 2012.
“Real change is needed to address this entrenched and long-running problem of discrimination against women directors,” one of the letters reads. “External investigations and oversight by government entities tasked with enforcing civil rights laws is necessary to effectuate this change.”
The organization also collected stories from 50 female directors whose agents had been told by producers to “not send women” for prospective jobs or who were personally told “we already hired a woman this season” when vying for television gigs.
The hiring disparities were even worse for women of color. From 2007 to 2012, the 500 top-grossing movies employed 565 directors, but only two were directed by African-American women.
“Employers steer and pigeonhole women to particular types of projects and exclude them from others, based on sex stereotypes,” Goodman wrote in one of the letters. “Nearly every woman with whom we spoke had either experienced directly or was aware of the widespread perception that women are better suited to and typically only considered for projects that are ‘women=oriented,’ such as romantic comedies, women-centered shows, or commercials for ‘girl’ products.”
The ACLU reported “unconscious bias,” with women often reporting the “pervasive perception that hiring women directors as more ‘risky’ than hiring men; even men with less experience.” That is particularly the case when it comes to hiring for big-budget films.
The organization cited the nature of hiring and recruitment, like the studio reliance on lists of potential directors, often those that exclude women. They also said that women directors they interviewed found that talent agencies “are reluctant to represent women, represent fewer women than men, and often do not include women directors on many of their lists when they refer directors to employers.”
The ACLU also found that although the DGA has made some efforts to increase the hiring of women and people of color for directing jobs, industry agreements with the studios have not been effective in making a significant dent in hiring.
The ACLU said that “women reported a widespread perception that the DGA leadership did not prioritize increasing the number of women directors hired and at time expressed hostility or blocked efforts of female members to make the issue a higher priority.”
In fact, the ACLU says that some women found that DGA fellowship or “shadowing” programs have been, “at best, in effective at reducing gender disparities in hiring of directors and, at worst, perceived by women directors as patronizing and a double standard.”
The ACLU said that a complaint was that the DGA provides a list of experienced women and minority directors to production companies, but such a list includes only a small handful of women members.
Update: The DGA issued a statement, below:
“The lack of network and studio action to hire more women and minority directors is deplorable. The DGA has been a long-standing advocate pressuring the industry to do the right thing, which is to change their hiring practices and hire more women and minority directors.
“The ACLU has made no effort to contact the DGA concerning the issues raised in its letters. The ACLU’s assertions reflect this lack of investigation as to the Guild, and ignore its efforts to combat discrimination against women directors and to promote the employment of women directors.
“There are few issues to which the DGA is more committed than improving employment opportunities for women and minority directors, it is time for change.”