American Women Directors & the DGA

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By Maria Giese, cialis MFA

In 1979, help there were very few women director members of the Guild— and they weren’t getting much work.  So six distinguished women director members (including recipients of a Peabody, an Oscar, and an Emmy nomination), who could not get hired, decided to ask the Guild how many women were actually getting directing jobs.

Luckily, that year the Guild had computerized their data system, and when the six women asked for and received those files, they pored over them for the next twelve months.  What they learned was disturbing: the employment numbers for women directors was just ½ of 1%. They presented the results of their research to Michael Franklin, then National Executive Secretary of the DGA.  He agreed that something had to be done.

The six directors then formed the Director’s Guild “Women’s Committee.”  The following year, they invited women of all guild categories to join.  During the next two years, from
1981 to 1983, Michael Franklin tried to get the studios and TV production companies to improve the hiring of women DGA members.  The Guild, in conjunction with the Women’s Committee, set up meeting after meeting to encourage production companies to interview women members; they circulated directors’ reels, discussed possible ‘set-asides’ (a specific number of directing slots for women)– all to no avail.

The studios and production companies were intransigent.  After one final attempt, when none of the invited executives showed up for a scheduled meeting, which included coffee and an inordinate number of Danish pastries, Franklin, fed up, made his historic decision. It was time to sue.

That event was dubbed “The Danish Debacle.”

In 1983, Ronald Reagan was president.  The Guild went to work.  It hired a law firm and expanded the suit to include ethnic minorities.  The named defendants were Columbia Pictures, Paramount, and Warner Bros studios.  Almost immediately, other studios and production companies began to find that heretofore unqualified women and minorities were suddenly stellar candidates for jobs; the hiring statistics for women and minorities began to climb.

In the interim, President Reagan had nominated Judge Pamela Rymer to a seat on the United States District Court for the Central District of California.  Though class action suits against police and fire departments, for instance, were common at the time, the film business was, and is, a strange combination of art and commerce.  There are no qualifying tests for directors.  Traits that might define a director are amorphous and subjective.

The Guild itself, through the hiring of assistant directors by directors, was now scrutinized using the same standards that applied to less “creative” professions.  The astonishing and ironic result was that in 1985, Judge Rymer disqualified the DGA from representing its women and minority members class certification on the grounds that some of the Guild’s own policies put it in conflict with the very interests of the women and minority plaintiffs on whose behalf the Guild had filed the lawsuit in the first place.

Judge Rymer’s ruling prohibited the Guild from proceeding with the case, but change had begun.  In the next ten years, employment of female Guild members rose to almost 16%. Regrettably, the change did not last.  In thirty years the industry has grown, and so has the Guild, yet the ratio of working women directors in the DGA has not advanced at the same pace, in fact the numbers have declined.  The numbers are so appalling that they infer violations of our nation’s basic civil rights and equal employment laws.

Is that a problem?

America’s extraordinary influence in the world is due largely to a prolific entertainment industry that provides more media content to the world than any other country.  While media is our most influential export, however, it comes almost exclusively from the perspective of male directors.  The ratios are staggering: according to recent DGA statistics, 95% of feature films are directed by men, and just 5% by women.  Episodic TV is nearly as bad, with the male-to-female ratio of working directors at 85% to 15%.

Why is the gender gap so blatant?  Why have women directors experienced so little progress in so many decades?  Why does gender disparity remain, year after year?

Let’s consider some good news…

In 2009, President Obama passed the “Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act” and in 2013 is making equality for women an important goal of his administration.  Military women have successfully challenged the “Combat Exclusion Rule” against the Department of Defense. Women are playing a pivotal role in American politics, holding more seats in the Senate, Congress, and House than ever before in American history.  This year, thanks to Keri Putnam, Sundance achieved parity for women director participants in feature competition for the first time ever.  And now, in 2013, we women in the Directors Guild of America are pressing for equity.

It is time…

Ending discrimination against women directors is vital to establishing a society of equality and diversity of perspective.  It is of paramount importance that the film and television content we export represents male and female perspectives equally.

If women are not directing film and television content, half of the voices of the American population are silenced and half the visions are suppressed.  It is not just basic fairness and the validity of the female point of view around the world that gives this issue such immediacy.  If we as a nation are to maintain a moral upper hand in geopolitical affairs, we must start by obeying our own laws protecting equality.

U.S. laws are in place for equal employment for women in our industry. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII states:

“It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to (…) sex.”

And the DGA and the studios have several excellent agreements in place.  The DGA Basic Agreement has a section on Diversity— Article 15— a non-discrimination policy which states:

“The parties mutually reaffirm their policy of non-discrimination in the employment or treatment of any Employee because of (…) sex.  The Employer shall make good faith efforts to increase the number of (…) women Directors.”

The DGA and producer signatories also have a very clear agreement documented in “The Freelance Live and Tape Television Agreement” (FLTTA), Article 19.  It reads:

“The parties (DGA & amp; Producer signatories) mutually reaffirm their policy of non-discrimination in the employment or treatment of any Employee because of (…) sex.”

The problem with these agreements is that they are not being effectively complied with by the studios and producer signatories.  The DGA entity charged with acting as the intermediary for the Guild in overseeing studio compliance of these agreements is the “DGA Diversity Task Force.”

Co-chairs and members of the “Diversity Task Force” are appointed by the president of the Guild.  Unless an appointed member happens to be a diversity committee co-chair, they have no direct relationship to the diversity committees, nor are they required to communicate with diversity members in any formalized manner.

The current Guild leadership strongly believes that Guild governance should be comprised only of working directors, but where the Diversity Task Force is concerned, a conflict of interest seems inherent. How can it be in the interest of highly-employed directors to apply pressure to the very studios who employ them to direct their TV shows on a regular basis?  Perhaps a rule should be put in place that the studios may not hire the directors who negotiate with them on behalf of DGA diversity members.

Another problem with studio adherence to DGA-studio agreements is the use of the legal term “Good Faith Efforts” which suggest that the studios will fairly and honestly attempt to hire more women.  In order to make a legal case that the studios are not fulfilling their promise, women would need clear physical and anecdotal evidence to prove a studio’s intentional malice in preventing women from being employed.

“Best Efforts,” on the other hand, is a much more onerous legal term and could do more to ensure that the studios fulfill their agreements to hire more women.  The studios would be weighted with the burden of proof to demonstrate they are indeed making real and significant efforts to hire more women.

A further problem in ameliorating the under-employment of DGA women lies in a disconnect between the Women’s Steering Committee and the Guild.  The Women’s Steering Committee was created to help women members increase their employment opportunities, but there is no functional mechanism to funnel goals or proposals from the Women’s Steering Committee into a higher DGA council.  A mode of official communication between the WSC and the DGA’s higher bodies of governance is simply not in place.

Potentially worsening the situation, this year the DGA National Board and the DGA executive staff requested that each diversity committee accept new by-laws that would deny leadership to any member who does not fulfill the “Working in the Trade” rule, meaning they have not worked 30 days in the past 7 years.

These new by-laws threaten to compromise the committees by moving them away from their original intent and curtailing the members’ freedom of speech, as they create several obstacles to democratic process and fair election policies for leadership. It is very important that we examine the proposed new laws immediately with this concern in mind.  The by-laws are intended to be enacted in April 2013.

What has the DGA been doing to solve the problem?

Over the years, the DGA, in conjunction with the studios, has experimented with a number of diversity programs the hopes of improving employment statistics for women members the Guild.  These programs include networking events, episodic TV shadowing fellowships, mentoring, panels, and education.

The programs are important to the maintenance of reciprocal good will between the DGA and the studios, but they have not yet increased employment opportunities for women DGA members.

So how can an epoch of parity for women directors begin?

Within the European Commission, right now, there is a powerful effort being made to force gender parity within European companies, mandating that a 40% minimum of women be included on corporate boards of directors.  This proposal comes with sanctions and penalties for violations in the case that corporations fail to comply.  If gender balance is of such acute concern on corporate boards, it most certainly should be an issue of immediacy in the American entertainment industry.

The DGA points its finger at the studios and the studios point their fingers at the DGA. Each shifts the blame to the other, and each responds with frustration to the suggestion that nothing is actually being done. While the responsibility of gender parity among directors ultimately falls to America’s film studios and other producing entities that actually do the hiring, the labor organization that must initiate crucial change is the one whose primary responsibility is to represent the rights of its members: the Directors Guild of America.

On February 3, 2013, the DGA reported that Michael Apted and Thomas Schlamme accepted appointments to co-chair the upcoming DGA Feature Film and Television Negotiations Committee.  The core mission of these negotiations is to “protect and extend the creative and economic rights of(DGA) members – directors and members of the directorial teams.” They will be working closely with Creative Rights Committee Co-chairs Steven Soderbergh and Jonathan Mostow.

Now is the time for the women members of the DGA to ask that the underemployment of women directors become a key issue to be addressed in the upcoming 2013 DGA negotiations with the studios. DGA Executive Director, Jay Roth has successfully led negotiations on the Guild’s major collective bargaining agreements six times since becoming National Executive Director in 1995.

The time has come…

…for Mr. Roth and the elected leaders of the DGA: Taylor Hackford, Steven Soderbergh, Michael Apted, and Thomas Schlamme and Jonathan Mostow, together will all other members of the DGA Negotiating Committee and DGA Staff, to get together with key studio executives and level the playing field for women directors.

2 thoughts on “American Women Directors & the DGA”

    1. Hi, We don’t have a physical address in Los Angeles currently as I’ve moved to Connecticut to work on a book about our work instigating the Federal investigation for women directors. I have office space available in New York at “Women Make Movies.” You can always call me to talk or Skype. Cell: 310-678-9632. Very best, Maria

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