The American Civil Liberties Union has compiled powerful evidence of pervasive discrimination against female directors based on data from the industry, scholars and interviews with 50 female directors.
Women directed only 4 percent of the 1,300 top grossing films released from 2002 to 2014 and less than 2 percent of the 100 top-grossing films in 2013-14. Nearly a third of the 220 television shows studied never had a single episode directed by a woman in the 2013-14 season. Yet roughly equal numbers of women and men in film school want to become directors. Based on this evidence, government agencies should conduct an investigation and consider litigation.
The ACLU’s data and my own research on Hollywood labor reveal pervasive stereotypes beginning early in a director’s career. Producers say that women can’t manage large crews, or that women lack interest or experience in directing action and horror movies.
There are many versions of this stereotype. In my research, a television showrunner said that women are underrepresented because they can’t write car chases. Experienced directors and writers know that’s silly. Men and women alike learn every aspect of moviemaking, including managing large crews and writing and directing car chases, explosions (think of “The Hurt Locker,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow) or costume dramas (which tend to draw female audiences but are often directed by men).
Stereotypes are especially powerful when multiple decision-makers make subjective assessments of ability, and the bias of any one of them can eliminate a candidate later in the hiring process. Discrimination can occur when a producer decides whom to consider for a job, whom to ask for a reference, and how past successes and failures are evaluated.
Discrimination occurs when talent agencies – which are paid a percentage of the candidate’s salary – make less money on female clients because women are paid less then men. Policies encouraging or requiring at least one “diversity” hire in the television writer’s room, in the ranks of assistant directors or on the list to be considered for director, often treat the so-called diversity policy as being a ceiling, not a floor.
Discrimination against women in Hollywood is similar to sex discrimination in other professions, including law, finance, medicine, technology and business. Male and female students equally aspire to enter the field, but at every career stage women are winnowed out by stereotyping and by implicit and explicit bias of the multiple decision-makers. Businesses say they can’t find qualified women to fill high-level jobs because women have family commitments or lack interest or experience, but they overlook the way that discriminatory practices drive women out of the field.
Successful lawsuits challenging employment discrimination in the professions are rare because the criteria used to judge ability are subjective and multiple decision-makers are involved. But the law is clear that the complete absence of women in jobs is strong evidence of illegal discrimination. Tiny numbers of women hired to direct in Hollywood looks like what the Supreme Court has found to prove discrimination.
A government investigation should prompt studios, networks and production companies to consider why no woman directed even a single episode on one-third of shows and one-third of networks, and why the number of women directing major feature films has not increased significantly since the 1970s.
A lot of talent and film school training is going to waste. Last weekend’s box office success of “Pitch Perfect 2” (by first-time director Elizabeth Banks) suggests audiences are there for films directed by women. Legal action could give women in the film business and audiences a chance to see what female directors can do.
Catherine Fisk is chancellor's professor of law at the University of California, Irvine.