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Women send glass ceiling reeling

Are showbiz's gender distinctions necessary?

There’s no denying women are a force in Hollywood.

Forbes recently published its list of the 20 richest women in entertainment. Both Variety and the Hollywood Reporter annually offer up rosters of women by power and achievement.

Groups like Women in Film, the Alliance of Women Directors, Women Make Movies, Moviesbywomen.com, the Cinefemme Film Festival and a panel series called Chicks Make Flicks support the work of femmes in the biz.

But is it time to tear down such gender distinctions? Do they have any meaningful impact?

“It used to be essential, but it’s not necessary anymore,” says one veteran female producer, who notes every time a Hollywood woman is honored, she says in her acceptance speech that she looks forward to the day these events are no longer needed. “That day came about eight or 10 years ago.”

Actually, that day came and then went, especially for female directors. In a recent study on women in entertainment from San Diego State U., statistics for 2005 show women directed just 7% of the 250 domestic top-grossing films, down from a historical high of 11% in 2000. (Women actually fared much better in the early 1900s, when a network of highly paid female screenwriters like “The Champ” scripter Frances Marion dominated Hollywood.)

Exec producers (at 16%) and producers (26%) currently fare better, but the former is down from 18% in 1998 and producers are up just two percentage points since then.

Those distressing stats also show that all this public backpatting just isn’t doing the trick.

“Those events bore me witless,” says producer Lynda Obst.

She’s not alone. Few women will go on the record to discuss their ennui for estrogen events, but many agree it’s time to rethink the way in which women herald one another — but don’t seem to hire one another.

“Do I really need to go to another lunch with soggy chicken to get a butterfly pin?” asks Oscar-winning producer Cathy Schulman, who now heads Mandalay Pictures. “Women need to be constructive and band together to solve problems like unequal salaries. I’ll join a task force for that.”

And not everyone wants to inherit the labels of “female director” or “woman producer.”

“Segregating women from men is counterintuitive,” states helmer Paige Cameron, who is working on her first feature, about Louis Armstrong. “At the end of the day, I am not competing in a roomful of women.”

The public perception of these events can be bad for business, too. Following the Hollywood Reporter’s breakfast for its 15th annual women in entertainment issue last December, a headline on Reuters asked “Women Too Busy to Shave Armpits?”

The story came from keynote speaker Maria Bello’s admission that being a working mom had led to “2-week-old growth.” Fellow speaker and new mom Maggie Gyllenhaal echoed Bello’s sentiments on stubble. In essence, the tale of busy females who don’t groom eclipsed the whole point of the event.

“That coverage was utterly disgusting,” says dean of the USC School of Cinematic Arts Elizabeth Daley. She adds that women power events and lists draw attention to remarkable people. “But I wish we didn’t need to keep drawing that attention.”

Yet it’s that unrelenting spotlight on the most powerful women that seems to undermine what should be the intention of these events: expanding the ranks of ladies in the industry.

But while folks like Amy Pascal or Stacey Snider hardly need a job fair, for younger women these events are, in the words of a high-level female publicist, “frigging important.”

Women in Film, which was founded in 1973, is trying to address that concern. The organization hopes to attract more young female filmmakers with a new Web site design (think YouTube) and better mentoring programs.

“There are more doors open, and we need to figure out how to teach young women how to walk through them,” says WIF’s newly elected president Jane Fleming.

But the real female movers and shakers in this town know to take a cue from their male counterparts. There may be no “Dudes Who Direct” film fest, but guys certainly socialize with an agenda. They get together to watch a game or play golf and talk shop in between putts.

“You build a backdrop and make it organic for people to meet and connect,” says producer Jennifer Klein, who for the past eight years has hosted an annual Sunday afternoon fete for industry women at her Brentwood home.

Suzanne Todd also holds an informal monthly get-together for femmes in the biz, and producers Gigi Pritzker and Deborah Del Prete of Odd Lot Entertainment have thrown afternoon teas.

At Klein’s party, no one is allowed a plus-one. Last year, industry heavies including Stacey Snider, Beth Swofford and Carla Hacken mingled with less prominent players while getting spa treatments in the backyard.

“Every event for women doesn’t have to be so repetitive and self-congratulatory,” says one producer.

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