ACLU Goes After Hollywood’s Gender Gap

The American Civil Liberties Union is taking Hollywood to task for the industry’s unchecked sexism in hiring practices. Accusing the industry of committing civil rights violations against women directors, the ACLU is calling for a state and federal investigation of television networks, movie studios and talent agencies.

The organization has sent a 15-page letter to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Department of Labor and the California Department of Fair Housing and Employment, evincing what it calls the “dramatic disparities” in the recruiting of women directors for movies and shows.

Collecting stories from 50 women directors and bolstering those anecdotes with vetted statistical studies, the letter states that women directors are “effectively excluded” and “seriously underrepresented” when it comes to hiring, despite being equitably represented in film school. Even the few who manage to push past the sexist tendencies of studios and networks and direct a project continue to face challenges throughout their careers.

The ACLU letter reads:

Women who break into the industry and get hired for their first job, or make a first independent film, are systematically underemployed thereafter: they find it harder to obtain steady employment compared to similarly qualified male directors. Women do relatively better in lower-dollar sub-sectors, such as independent film and documentary film … Yet their success in these feeder sectors does not translate into studio opportunities as it does for male directors.

Even after finding hard-won success, women directors report “being treated as tokens and being judged more harshly than their male peers.”

The letter shares widely cited statistics on the damning lack of gender equity: Barely 2 percent of the directors of the top-grossing 100 films of 2013 and 2014 were women and as for television, women made up 14 percent of directors for the 2013-2014 season. The numbers for women of color directors were even more alarming: Women of color directed only 2 percent of television episodes, and out of a survey of the 500 top-grossing movies from 2007-2012, only two of the 565 directors were non-white women.

These dismal numbers are nothing new. A year ago, award-winning director and active Directors Guild of America member Maria Giese wrote on the directors’ gender gap for Ms. She explains that a key reason for the lack of women directors is that studios lump race and gender into a single “diversity” category when handpicking directors. Therefore, they can just hire non-white men to meet “diversity” requirements while not hiring any women directors.

As writer and comedian Dani Klein Modisett says in the latest issue of Ms. in an article on women showrunners:

Without the insight and experience of women, the entertainment media runs the risk of telling stories that not only fail the Bechdel Test but also rob audiences of a deeper understanding of the female experience. … There is a huge audience for storytelling that gives voice to everyone standing in line behind all the straight white men.

Names like Shonda Rhimes or Kathryn Bigelow are more the exception than the rule. A few game-changing innovators can’t cancel out the ubiquitous and harmful boys’ club mentality that silences the creative voices of women showrunners and filmmakers.

Hopefully a federal investigation will scare the powers-that-be in Hollywood into finally taking steps to combat industry sexism.

To read our exclusive interviews with Hollywood showrunners Shonda Rhimes and Jill Soloway, get a print or digital subscription to Ms. today!

Photo of Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow courtesy of Flickr user David Shankbone licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.


Associate editor of Ms. magazine