The “Confidence Gap” Isn’t Holding Back Women in Film—the Industry Is

There is something satisfying about imagining a cabal of white men sitting at the top of the power pile cackling maniacally and whispering to each other: “Let’s not hire any women. It’ll drive them craaazyyy.”

And while I have no doubt that in certain corner offices that is precisely what’s happening, if not in so many words, the more complicated reality is that systems of oppression, particularly in the modern era, work in far subtler formats.

I wanted to be able to point cleanly to one or three choke points and say, “Here’s where we’re losing the women. Here’s where they’re being kept out.” Then, I imagined, we could address those things and move on with our careers. I’m sorry to report that it isn’t that simple.

As I listened to the stories of women’s careers—as long or short, as successful or middling as they were—over one hundred hours’ worth of interviews, I came to understand that we are losing a war of attrition as much as anything else.

The power structures—patriarchal, racial, cultural, financial, all of which are at play here—are so very, very powerful and so very, very entrenched. We women are trying to succeed in a system that at a cellular level was not built for us. To transform that system away from promoting the elevation of white men to the exclusion of virtually everyone else would require a concerted, sustained and radical effort to disrupt long-standing mechanisms. It would require visionary leadership to strongly, with courage and an intolerance for excuses, implement a new way forward.

Without that, each woman, on an individual career level, must attempt to struggle up a mountain so slick with mud that there is no step made that is completely forward-moving.

What is occurring that is adding up to the systematic flattening of the career trajectories of women in Hollywood? Throughout the interviews I conducted, as well as calling upon my own experiences and research, I was able to see the patterns emerge.

At each hurdle you may say to yourself, “Well, that’s not so bad—she could get around this in several different ways. She just has to keep climbing.” And in many cases, you would not be wrong. But as the full picture develops, I hope that you will see, as I have come to see, that the terrible, almost implausibly paltry number of women in film is the result of the sum total of a thousand cuts made to women over the life cycles of their careers. Hollywood is not crushing women so much as bleeding them out.

Although representation of female students at top film schools is now roughly equal in terms of gender parity—women represent 51 percent of graduate students at NYU’s School of the Arts and 46 percent at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts—that does not mean that women’s experience at those schools is the same as their male peers’. From the moment they matriculate, the subtle and less-subtle messaging to women is that they are not destined to be directors and that their perspectives are less valuable.

A female filmmaker was sent a list of 100 “films-you-must-see” before arriving at a top film school. Almost every single one was directed by a white man. She had seen almost none of them, and as she watched that summer, the films said nothing to her. Throughout her film school career, her male classmates would wax lyrical about the genius of these movies, making her feel like an unsophisticated philistine because she didn’t “understand” them.

In a program at a different top film school, an iconic white male director came to guest-teach. By chance on that day, most of the women happened to sit on one side of the room and the men on the other. The visiting director addressed his entire lecture to the men’s side. “It was extreme to the point that even the guys noticed,” a female student recalled to me. One male student who made a particular connection in the room that day later became that same iconic director’s assistant on his next movie and went on to co-write one of his Oscar-winning films.

Male students generally leave film school with their worldviews and dreams validated and reinforced. They are welcomed, heard, understood, and seen. This gives them confidence and a sense of entitlement that allows them to assuredly step out into the industry. Female students, by contrast, generally leave film school deflated, demoralized, and confused; feeling a fundamental dissonance with the work they have been told to venerate; and lacking role models. Director and producer Janet Grillo entered film school “on fire to write and direct my own stories.” Three years later, she says, “I felt irrelevant.”

While roughly half of film school graduates are female, they make up only 18 percent of directors for micro-budget features (those with budgets of less than $500,000). Shockingly, that indicates that the single biggest drop-off of women from the film industry—more than 64 percent—is happening between the end of film school and the making of a first, small-scale feature film. Since that 18 percent includes women like me, who did not attend film school, we can conclude that even more women are dropping out of the industry immediately post–film school than those percentages suggest.

While a general post–film school sense of demoralization and irrelevance somewhat helps explain those numbers, we must dig deeper still to find out why such a huge number of women are dropping out of the industry before even making their first micro-budget feature film. 

There are many statistics and much anecdotal evidence across industries suggesting that a “confidence gap” exists among women, such that they resist putting themselves forward. This argument lays a lot of blame at the feet of women themselves for the chronic lack of progress in the women’s advancement in the workplace. Among these studies is a 2014 Hewlett Packard internal report demonstrating that the average woman would only apply to a hypothetical job if she met 90 to 100 percent of the stated criteria, where the average man would apply if he met 60 percent of the criteria.

Brenda Major, a social psychologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara who studies self-perception, has found that men consistently overestimate their abilities to complete tasks, while women underestimate. She found that the actual performance of tasks did not differ across genders. This phenomenon is so prevalent that Columbia Business School has coined the term “honest overconfidence” to explain men’s blithe and unwarranted self-belief. Their research shows, specifically, that men on average rate their own performance to have been 30 percent better than it actually was.

These studies have been often cited as reasons why this post–film school drop-off rate, as well as an overall lack of women’s progress in the course of their film careers, occurs.

The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative revealed that, even as of 2018, only 22 percent of the feature films submitted to Sundance are directed by women. That could easily be explained away by the fact that it’s harder for women to get their films made in the first place, and that there is a huge barrier to entry on getting a film made at all.

The problem with this as a sole explanation is that these lower submission rates also seem to apply to screenplays. One interviewee who works on the submissions team of the Nicholls Screenwriting Awards told me that their submission rates show similar gender breakdowns—with women only submitting around one-quarter of all scripts. This discrepancy has a less clear barrier-to-entry justification, given that to enter the Nicholls competition, you only need a screenplay and a $45 submission fee.

Indeed, learning that the largest drop-off point for female filmmakers is prior to entering even the micro-budget film space gave even me pause. Because while, yes, there are certain barriers to making a microbudget feature, the largely democratic nature of financing by crowdfunding does suggest that women themselves are opting out of taking this first career step and/or are getting stalled in making short films for too many years and never make it to feature-land.

Annie Doona, chair of Screen Ireland, formerly the Irish Film Board, conducted an exit survey of graduates of IADT National Film School in Ireland to try to figure out why a similar phenomenon was happening there. The council asked graduating seniors what their plans were after graduation. “Almost universally, the boys said, ‘I have a production company, and I’m going to make movies.’ We’d ask them what that meant, and it eventually emerged that their ‘production company’ was a laptop in their mother’s basement. The girls almost all said, ‘Well, I’m going to try and do X.’ I wanted to shout at them, ‘No! You have a production company!’”

This confidence-gap theory—as widespread as it has been—has certainly led to a lot of women blaming themselves for their lack of career success. Forty-four percent of women in the New Female Tribes survey—a five-year survey of over 8,000 women across 19 countries on subjects ranging from their religious beliefs to their careers and identities—cited themselves as a barrier to their own achievements, with 27 percent pointing specifically to their insecurities as a barrier.

Almost every woman I spoke with has dedicated considerable energy to divining some internal fault—often citing a lack of confidence—as the reason for her lack of professional progress.

I will admit that I have wavered myself throughout the course of this research and writing process over to what extent our unquestionably invaded brains and societally programmed self-doubt cause us to hold ourselves back. After all is said and done, however, I have come to the conclusion that, while I do think that a certain amount of “opting out” occurs, the amount of weight put on that argument is a particularly sophisticated form of gaslighting, which neatly takes the onus of change off the people who sit atop the system and hold the actual power and puts it instead onto the victims of that system.

There is also the significant reality that white men probably arrive at the conclusion that they can try something they are only moderately knowledgeable about and good at and will be met with support and success because that has been their experience. Women, by contrast, have learned through hard knocks that they will not get the job/financing/opportunity unless they are three times better prepared than their white, male counterparts.

Their ensuing reticence to put themselves up for jobs and opportunities unless they are almost ridiculously well prepared is an entirely rational response to what is most likely to occur.

Excerpted from The Wrong Kind of Women: Inside Our Revolution to Dismantle the Gods of Hollywood by Naomi McDougall Jones. Copyright 2020. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.


Naomi McDougall Jones is an award-winning actor, writer and producer. Her book, The Wrong Kind of Women: Inside Our Revolution to Dismantle the Gods of Hollywood, is out on February 4th.