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Women in Animation Leads Push to Get More Females Into the Toon Business

Women in Animation is on a mission. The organization is working to bring gender parity to the creative side of the animation industry with its 50-50 by 2025 initiative, which the group launched at last year’s Annecy Film Festival.

The numbers are troubling. According to figures compiled last year by the Animation Guild for WIA’s presentation at Annecy, only 20% of the animation workforce is made up of women. Broken down further, the survey found that 10% of animation producers-directors, 17% of writers, 21% of designers and 23% of animators are women.

“The first thing we’re asked when we share these startling statistics is ‘How does this happen? Why does this happen?’ And the next question is ‘How do we change it?’ ” says WIA co-president Marge Dean. “The answer is very complicated. There are things that go on systemically and in the general culture of male dominance in the industry. Then there’s internal issues with women themselves.”

Dean says that WIA has learned that many women are hesitant to go after these roles. “It’s the old ‘If you see it, you can be it’ effect. We think that’s a big part of it. So we’ve been trying to bring more of a spotlight to women who are in those roles.”

“Anomalisa” producer Rosa Tran is one woman in animation today who has spoken up for herself, and now she’s nominated for an Academy Award. “My advice to a young woman getting into animation today is to believe in yourself, as cheesy as that sounds,” she says. “You have to go out ad  make opportunities for yourself. Don’t wait for anybody to hand you anything. Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn and say ‘I’m interested in doing this,’ or ‘I’d like to be a part of that project with you. I’m capable and I have these skills. Don’t look at me in just one way. I can do anything.’”

One way WIA tries to help women in the industry is by exposing them to women who’ve achieved success in the biz. Kristy Scanlan, co-president of WIA, says, “We do a lot of events where we show a film or a pilot for a TV series and have a panel afterwards with the women who worked on the project. It’s shining a light on women who have succeeded in the industry so that other women can see them as an example.”

Jennifer Yuh Nelson, director of DreamWorks Animation’s “Kung Fu Panda 2” and co-director of “Kung Fu Panda 3,” is one of the few female animation directors in the industry today. Her advice to women looking to make their own mark in the business is to persevere. “There are so many ways of doing a job. Doing this role is not a stereotype,” she says. “They can do whatever makes them comfortable as long as they love what their doing and they keep at it.”

Dean says getting more women on the creative side of animation is not just about equity. “Of course there should be more women because that would be fair and women are more than 50% of the population and that sort of stuff. Women are the most untapped resource around in all fields,” she says. “But if we can get more female voices out there, our culture would change and the world would become a better place, or at least our culture would become better. We’d start have more interesting animation, more interesting shows and movies and music and design and all this kind of stuff. And nobody knows what that would look like, because we’ve never had the opportunity, ostensibly, to have an impact. That’s our motivation and it really rings true at Nick and pretty much everywhere we go. Men who are running these companies say, yeah I want that.”

“It’s the old ‘If you see it, you can be it’ effect. We think that’s a big part of it. So we’ve been trying to bring more of a spotlight to women who are in those roles.”
Marge Dean

Dean sees progress. “Partly because we’re banging the drum, and culturally, everyone’s focused on women right now. There are people like (Nickelodeon president, content development and production) Russell Hicks, who on his own said, ‘I want my creative staff to be 50% female.’ And they said to us, ‘Help us get more women in here.’”

Nick has a robust internship and fellowship program, and Hicks says the studio recruits heavily from animation schools. “We believe in (WIA’s) cause wholeheartedly,” he says. “Basically, it fits with our beliefs here at the studio: the belief in outreach.”

Other animation studios are seeing progress too.

Katherine Sarafian, producer and Pixar’s VP, strategic talent planning, says the studio is taking steps to even out the gender balance there. “At Pixar, we try to create stories that resonate with our audiences,” she says. “Different perspectives, backgrounds and points of view help us conceive the most meaningful stories. But in terms of gender balance in our studio, the numbers are not nearly where we want them to be. The number of women in our ranks has increased over time, but this requires an active approach, given that animation has historically employed more men.”

Sarafian says Pixar is reaching out to students, and even hosted a Girls Who Code program last year. “We have several programs around the studio, from mentoring and forums for women in leadership to groups where technical artists and other women in production come together for peer support, guest speakers and leadership opportunities,” she adds.

Disney Television Animation has had great success with its femme-created series “Star vs. the Forces of Evil,” the brainchild of Daron Nefcy. “We hope to build on her show and other series created by women,” says Eric Coleman, senior VP, original programming, and general manager of DTVA. “We are always looking for new voices, and our development team has, in recent years, increased its focus on female and diverse creators. We currently have an equal number of women and men in executive and production management positions, and we are dedicated to increasing the number of women in creative positions.”

Sony Pictures Animation, led by Kristine Belson, has an internship program, and 64% of the artistic talent recruited out of it since 2010 have been women. SPA’s production management team is more than 70% female.

In the meantime, WIA is doing all it can to get the word out. The org holds monthly mixers for members and non-members alike, male and female, to relax and network. “There’s one on the eastside and one on the westside, and they’re really well attended. More than 100 people go,” says Scanlon. “I’ve heard from women who attend our networking events that they’ve gotten jobs because of them.”

WIA also has a mentorship program, in its second year. “The first year we had eight pairs of mentors and mentees. And this year I think we have 27 mentees. So we’ve grown it a lot,” explains Scanlon. “We try to have a varied sampling of artists: technical people, production people, writers, etc., across the board. The pilot program was very successful. We got an overwhelmingly positive response.”

Since there are more female animation graduates looking to enter the industry’s creative workforce, there might be a tendency to think the parity issue will resolve itself, but Sarafian says that would be a mistake.

“I would not count on the number of female graduates to ‘naturally change’ anything.  Relying on the natural course of events has not tipped the scales on this industry-wide – something seen across the board in entertainment. So the natural order won’t change things quickly in animation either,” she notes. “We need to make deliberate efforts, with our top leadership investing deeply in female creative talent.  And we need to go out of our way to break entrenched habits, rethinking who is in the room in creative conversations and ensuring all voices at the table are heard. We need more women at the table.”

It’s not going to be easy to reach that 50-50 goal by 2025. “We need to get almost 3,000 women into jobs if this industry stays the same size as it is now,” says Dean.

While progress is clearly being made, is the 2025 goal too ambitious?

“Our industry needs deliberate, decisive efforts now to get to gender balance, inclusion, and true belonging for a diverse talent pool,” Sarafian says. “A clear goal like Women in Animation’s 50-50 by 2025 is a fantastic step.”

DTVA’s Coleman agrees. “I think the goal is very ambitious. But to make great things happen, you need to be bold.”

Ultimately, Dean says, “the No. 1 group that can fix this are women themselves. Women need to start thinking about that, and networking and hiring other women.”

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