“At least for the main competition, we have achieved almost complete parity without having to modify our selection criteria and these [female-directed] films have been positively welcomed. This goes to show that Venice doesn’t have any kind of bias,” said the Venice Film Festival’s artistic director Alberto Barbera at a seminar on gender equality and inclusivity earlier this week at the festival.

Competition films by women directors at the festival include “Nomadland,” directed by Chloe Zhao (pictured); her film premieres Friday. Barbera also mentioned Biennale College, where only two out of four selected projects were made this year due to the pandemic – both of them by women. While Debora Rossi, the deputy general manager of the Biennale – the film festival’s parent body – shared some statistics showing “a strong balance in the organization,” she added that in Venice “quality knows no gender.”

Statistics for the industry paint a gloomier picture. According to past reports, women represented only 22% of all directors of European feature films between 2015 and 2018, and only 19% of European series, with just 9% of their projects falling into the high-budget category. Luisella Pavan Woolfe of the Council of Europe commented that heightened vigilance is necessary to ensure that the post-COVID world is not even more unequal. She added: “We also need to look at on-screen content in order to combat gender stereotypes and sexism in this sector.”

Anna Laura Orrico, under secretary of state in the Italian Ministry of Culture and Tourism, pondered the way society creates such a divide early on. “Even today, girls and boys are educated differently. We see girls playing with dolls and boys with cars, girls told to pursue humanistic studies and boys to pursue science, even though the first person to write a mathematics textbook in Italy was a woman [Maria Gaetana Agnesi].” Although many women study directing, “those who actually become directors are usually men,” she noted.

Iole Maria Giannattasio, coordinator of the research unit within Italy’s Directorate General Cinema of the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism, added there is a higher percentage of female directors behind documentaries and shorts, which tend to cost less, and that among established directors, the percentage of women is low. “Italy doesn’t give many opportunities to youngsters, but in the 20-40 age group [women’s] presence is higher. Maybe there is a culture change, or it’s just difficult for them to affirm themselves. Making the second work is much harder.”

Connecting via Zoom, Susan Newman-Baudais, project manager at European film funder Eurimages, said that while more female directors are applying for support, progress remains to be made. “These figures are not rising fast enough to allow Eurimages to reach its strategic goal of allocating 50% of funding to projects led by women,” she said, also mentioning annual scholarships awarded to female directors. “The chances of being supported as a female director with a first and second feature are quite good, but less so for subsequent films,” she observed, wondering if female directors tend to leave the industry or move onto other roles.

Charlotte Lund Thomsen, legal counsel for FIAPF (the international federation of film producers’ associations), presented the “Good Practice Handbook” – an overview of some of the statistics on the presence of women in the European audiovisual sector.

Adriano De Santis of Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, Italy’s National School of Cinema, and Paola Sangiovanni of Scuola d’Arte Cinematografica Gian Maria Volonté discussed film school practices. “Things are changing,” said De Santis, focusing on his school’s departments, including sound, which used to be all-male. He also suggested that in the future, the role of a director wouldn’t be as important. “We can’t focus only on the directors, referring to a role that’s decreasing in importance.”

Still, Margherita Chiti, vice president of Women in Film Television and Media Italy, called out Centro Sperimentale for its list of recommended films, featuring only two female directors, Lina Wertmüller and Francesca Archibugi. Talking about a scholarship dedicated to women who want to become creative producers, she mentioned the example of Reese Witherspoon, determined to create female projects, like “Big Little Lies” or “Little Fires Everywhere.”

But it was another star whose words were used to sum up the event. “Geena Davis said there is one category of gross gender inequality where the under-representation of women can be fixed absolutely overnight. It’s onscreen,” Chiti said.

Alongside the festival, the discussion was also hosted by Eurimages, and Women in Film Television and Media Italy.