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‘Queen Sugar,’ ‘Grace and Frankie’ Production Designers Weigh In on the Fight for Parity

Queen Sugar Own TV Show
Skip Bolen/Warner Bros. Entertainment

Grace and Frankie” production designer Devorah Herbert recalls times in her career when she would walk into tech scout meetings and be the only woman in the room.

She couldn’t say anything about it at then because “if you asked for equality in the workplace, you were seen as someone who was bitchy,” she says. So instead, she just “got used to it. You incorporate that into your world and it’s how you function as a working woman.”

Herbert’s experience echoes that of many women climbing the ranks in Hollywood — and many more still who have tried to enter into showbiz but were unable to bust through the boys’ club of some departments.

Much has been written about how parity is far from being achieved in areas such as directing and cinematography, but female production designers are further underrepresented. Just last year the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film at San Diego State University’s annual Boxed In report revealed women make up only 31% of key positions behind the scenes. But that report does not look at production design. According to Variety’s own research into that field, women make up only 27.14% of working production designers within the Art Directors Guild. (The guild does not look at media separately, so that is a total across film and TV.)

“As the men progressed to bigger gigs and higher-budget projects, women got doors slammed in their faces,” says Tema Staig, executive director, Women in Media. “Traditionally, male directors do not bring their women keys in creative or technical departments up the food chain with them.”

As a result, many women have stuck to low budget, indie and/or nonunion work while their male counterparts with the same, or even less, experience are able to move up to become department heads. And as they advanced, they often stuck to the same “buddy system” of recommending other male colleagues for similar gigs.

Queen Sugar” production designer Ina Mayhew says she would hear male members of production talking about their same-sex friends in her field: “My friend is a production designer. He hasn’t done too much, but don’t worry about it because we need to give him a break,” she recalls conversations going. “There were some years where I was always passed over by a man. I think I was always aware of it and I remember those struggles.”

“If enough people tell you that you aren’t welcome, eventually you get the hint and look for something else,” says Staig. “Then you find out that those untenable, undermining situations plague every department [to] varying degrees. This is beginning to change with further awareness and a slow, but persistent shift in the mindset of those in a position to hire.”

Such a shift occurred for Mayhew when working with director Spike Lee on commercials and music videos. She credits him with being extremely collaborative and always allowing for a two-way conversation of design and concept. This helped her build confidence, in addition to her portfolio.

Further credit is owed to Ava DuVernay, she notes, who executive produces “Queen Sugar” and is a pioneer in hiring women to lead departments on her sets. This “provided a sense of freedom to ask questions without fear of repercussion,” Mayhew says.

Similarly, Bianca Ferro says producer Debra Spidell’s mentorship was instrumental in helping her transition from the set decoration department to production design. Spidell, she says, kept recommending her for promotions, helping her secure jobs such as her current one as production designer on “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay.”

“We are not in competition” with one another, Ferro says.

Large industry efforts to help push various fields, such as production design, to parity, include the Women in Media’s Crew List, which is a literal list of professional women to consider when crewing up a new project. In addition, prior to the pandemic, the organization was holding “Hire These Women” lunches in order to make personal connections between those with hiring power and those looking to beef up their below-the-line resumes.

“There is no longer the excuse that they can’t be found or that they aren’t worthy,” Staig says.

Ultimately, it falls to the department heads to prove commitment to parity by the way they make their hires, though. Mayhew admits that she often looks for women who want to go on to become designers to work under her.

“Just as I had help getting the job on a film from someone who believed in me, I will do the same,” she says. “That is what we have to do as women designers: continue to mentor and give opportunity and support through discussion and consultation on both presentation and interviewing techniques. And, of course, continuing to dialogue with women about how to work and succeed as a designer.”