How Hollywood Lists Keep Women Directors Jobless

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Voila! A woman director through the glass ceiling!

By Maria Giese

Nearly 40 years ago, pill in 1976, patient the California Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights (a bi-partisan agency of the executive branch of the Federal Government that is required to submit reports to the President and the Congress whenever the President, the Congress, or the Commission deem desirable) held an open meeting to collect public testimony on equal employment opportunity in Hollywood.

The Commission wanted to know why Affirmative Action programs of the previous decade(s) to hire more women and minorities had failed.  Unfortunately, several studios refused to meet. While Disney and Universal sent representatives, Fox, Paramount and Warner simply refused.  IATSE, the umbrella organization for the unions also refused.

The Commission wrote: “I think it raises some serious questions of commitment on the part of the studios (to address equal employment).”  The Committee requested a Commission hearing.  Federal Commissioners approved subpoena power, and in 1977 “recalcitrant witnesses” began appearing for the hearings.

Based on the hearings, in 1978, the Commission prepared a 55-page report intended to analyze and understand the industry, how it functions, and how women and minorities are excluded.  They examined the size and composition of the workforce, analyzed the studios, unions and Guilds, the “roster system” (lists) used for hiring, and how “off-roster” hires, as well as apprenticeships and training work.

The Commission understood how important the film and TV industry is to shaping our culture, and to have fair and balanced depictions of our world, the images created in Hollywood must represent the diverse perspectives of the American population.  For example, at that time, less than one half of one percent of films were being directed by women, even though women make up half the population.  Women were literally excluded as creators and directors of media content in the United States of America.

What the Commission learned is as follows:

  1. The Federal Government has been weak in enforcing Affirmative Action efforts to increase employment of women and minorities. Therefore Hollywood studios have been shirking their responsibilities. “When Government compliance efforts diminished, industry equal employment opportunity waned.”
  2. The U.S. Film and TV industry uses a “Roster System”—LISTS—to hire employees, and this makes it every difficult to enforce equal opportunity employment.

What the commission learned is important and will be stated below, however, I must preface the findings be stating that all the problems the Commission identified remain in place today.  The representation of women has increased so insignificantly as to require immediately change.  Today women direct about 3 to 5 percent of feature films—forty years later, women are still fundamentally excluded from this profession and our entertainment industry still in egregious violation of Title VII.

What happened?  Why did this 1978 report result in no significant change?  The answer is that while the United States Government has lots of excellent, very hard won civil rights laws intended to help create gender parity in the entertainment industry, when the Commission on Civil Rights presented the report to the President and the Congress, no one did anything about it.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, realizing the Federal Government was unable or unwilling to enforce Title VII in Hollywood, just dropped the ball.

Who picked up the ball?  The Directors Guild of America. The DGA came to act as the enforcement agency for equal employment in the industry.  They began to include in collective bargaining agreements with the studios equal employment and diversity articles intended to enforce Title VII.  The DGA set up a Diversity Department and (in 2004) a Diversity Task Force to oversee studio compliance of the agreements, but little compliance ever actually occurred.

The studios fell back on their old roster system of hiring, and the Guild itself began its own ad hoc roster system, arbitrarily placing names of women on the list of female directors to be submitted to the studios whenever someone made enough noise.  As is stated on the DGA.org website:

“The DGA maintains a contact list of experienced women and minority directors to make it easier for producers making hiring decisions. The list can be obtained by any production company by contacting the DGA.”

Unfortunately, because the selection of women on the DGA Diversity “List” was (and is) not merit-based, the film and TV producers were often left disappointed by the results.

The Lists themselves are today the primary way women directors get TV directing jobs.  The pool is kept very small, and is vigorously protected by the few women on it.  Getting on the list requires only to be “tapped” for an episode of directing, so whatever women gets lucky enough, pushes hard enough, or trades a favor, may end up on the List, regardless of her talent as a director.

Unfortunately, this results in Lists that do not include best of the best graduates from America’s top film schools, it does not include women who have managed to direct even very successful feature films, it is not a list based on merit at all, but rather an arbitrarily selected group of women formed on a basis of tokenism.

The Lists are comprised of women who are very successful actresses, crew-members who begged long-enough, and daughters, nieces, lovers, personal friends of anyone in an appropriate power position to hire directors.  Some of the names represent random women (perhaps a women who had just have a feature reviewed at some festival or who just signed with an agent who is owed a favor), hand-picked by some executive who just knew he had to break down and hire a women director—and she became the one.

The women on the list are “just anyone who managed to get on the list.”  This is one possible reason that women directors are often deemed inferior to their male counterparts.  Women directors in American television are merely tokens, few people really care much whether they are any good or not.  They get slotted in, the producers cover for them, directing the “difficult scenes,” and then the execs move back to their dependable male directors.

What if women were not tokens?  What if directing jobs in American TV were merit-based, and yet women were provided equal opportunity?  Then an extraordinary thing would happen:  Women would move into the profession based on education and skill.  They would be the best of the best in the profession, and because of required abidance of equal employment opportunity laws by studios, they would soon reach parity.

American film and television would achieve gender balance at last in our most culturally influential global export.  The United States would no longer be a hypocritical nation that ignores its own sacred values of equality for all.

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