When animation guru John Lasseter was ousted from his post at Pixar last year, trailed by a series of allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct, it seemed like a wake-up call for an animation industry that was slowly coming around to its own #MeToo moment. Yet Lasseter’s controversial hiring by Skydance Animation just months later highlighted the challenges of reshaping an industry that many women say has systematically worked against them.
“I do feel like there’s been a glass ceiling that I’ve been hitting up against,” Marge Dean, president of Women in Animation, says. “I feel like I have to justify myself and my position, or explain myself in more detail than my male colleagues have to. I think I have to work a little bit harder to prove myself.”
Some of the most powerful positions in the animation industry are held by women, including newly minted DreamWorks Animation president Margie Cohn, Disney chief creative officer Jennifer Lee, Paramount Pictures Animation president Mireille Soria and Sony Pictures Animation president Kristine Belson. Yet industry-wide, the numbers are less encouraging.
Women hold just 27% of creative leadership roles in the animation biz, according to Women in Animation. In the past two decades, just two studio animated features have been helmed by female directors. For all the success at the top, opportunities have not trickled down throughout the industry.
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Putting a finger on the problem’s source has vexed some of the best minds in the business. According to surveys of L.A.-based animation schools in recent years, roughly 60% of graduating classes are female. Yet few of those women are breaking into — or being retained by — an industry that has suppressed them in both obvious and subtle ways.
The Lasseter scandal exposed a toxic culture that permeated Pixar, where women were actively sidelined. Few companies have strong support systems for new parents — a problem that can be particularly impactful on young moms.
Hiring practices also need to evolve. “I think we all deal with so much unconscious bias that we’re not aware of,” says Belson, who helms a studio division heralded for its inclusiveness. “If you really want to instigate change, I think you do have to be thoughtful about it. You have to look around the room and say, ‘OK, what’s missing here?’”
For its part, Women in Animation has launched the 50/50 by 2025 initiative to push for gender parity in the industry. Many female execs also take on important mentorship roles to groom the young women hoping to follow in their footsteps. “Without seeing women [in positions of power], it’s very hard to imagine yourself in that job,” Melissa Cobb, Netflix’s VP of original animation, says.
Perhaps most encouragingly, the lingering fallout from the Lasseter scandal has also led to a cultural shift. “I do believe that the conversations that are going on now are making those sort of situations, and those sort of behaviors, pretty rare,” Belson says. “I think too many people are paying attention. Women have found their voices and can speak up.”