Gender equality, a huge issue in the Australian screen industry

As the world celebrates the International Women’s Day and Australian screen professionals such as Jan Chapman,  Liz Watts and Mandy Walker continue to succeed  globally, it would seem that gender imbalance is a thing of the past. However, Georgina Pearson sat down with Women in Film and Television’s (WIFT) program director Ana Tiwary, who explained that gender equality is  not only a huge issue today, but in fact the number of women in the industry is actually decreasing.

How many members do you have?

Women in Film and Television NSW has several hundred members and thousands of industry practitioners in our network.  WIFT NSW is very inclusive and we have quite a few male members and continue to encourage more men to join and support us. We are thrilled that almost 30 percent  of our mentors are men and we also have men on our mentorship advisory panel.  Many men understand the problems faced by women in the screen industry and have seen their mother, wife, sisters or daughters struggle to break the ‘celluloid ceiling’.

I frequently meet men who are baffled by the lack of women in certain specialised fields and want to help bring about change but just don’t know where to start. WIFT NSW provides a professional yet friendly platform for men and women to come together and help bring about gender equality in a proactive and meaningful way. Our membership has grown exponentially over the past three years, and we hope to continue to make WIFT ever more relevant, inclusive and adaptive to the changing needs of women as well as the screen industry in Australia. A membership run, non-profit organisation, WIFT NSW was first established in 1982 and is one of the 40 chapters of WIFT International.

In your opinion, what are the main issues for women in the screen industry?

It is not all doom and gloom for women, but the screen industry in Australia needs to wake up from it’s complacency and act fast to bring about gender equality, or it will continue to fall behind developing and even third world nations. The major concern is that the number of women, especially in technical areas has dropped instead of increasing in the past 10 years in Australia.

A lot of arguments presented on this topic tend to revolve around personal and physical shortcomings of women. If that were true, how is it that there has been in increase in number of women in other traditionally male-dominated or technical fields such as computer science, engineering, air-force, architecture, astronautics, sports and so on? We are so ignorant about gender issues that even those men as well as women who think they are being understanding are often presenting and reinforcing sexism.

Having worked in the screen industry for over 15 years and over 3 continents, I am convinced that physical and personality traits such as lack of confidence, self-doubt, lack of stamina and sensitivity are not the domain of women alone. If we want to end gender disparity, we need to stop these sweeping generalisations, which are not only sexist but also have no real merit. Haven’t we all come across aspiring women filmmakers who look much stronger than say Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese? There are many male filmmakers who have so called ‘feminine’ qualities – are sensitive, suffer from self-confidence issues and even those aging and without much physical strength are able to continue working in the industry successfully.

Even if we were to create this ‘perfect’ woman filmmaker (many do exist) – strong, confident (assertive but not aggressive), single and no children, tech-savvy, self-promoter and so on – will she then be given the same opportunities as men? The answer is no. So why is a woman expected to be an absolute Goddess and sacrifice having a family to make it in this industry, when the same perfection and sacrifices are not demanded of men? This is why my attempt here is to focus on external forces and pressures that women are faced with, things that we as an industry can address and change. In my opinion, the main issues facing women in the screen industry can be divided into 2 categories: the Real problems and the Myths.

The real issues facing women can be grouped into three overlapping areas: systemic, socio-cultural and financial.

SYSTEMIC ISSUES: These are issues related to the systems in place within the screen industry that are not conducive to women. If there is any lack of confidence women feel, it is not a lack of belief in their own ability, but the lack of confidence in the system and the industry to be able to support their careers.

  • a lack of education and awareness of women’s issues. The history, politics and sociology of gender inequality and feminist theory is not being taught at most film schools. Feminism is viewed as a scary and crazy fanatic movement and as an attack on men. In reality feminism is just an innocent word to describe the specific human rights & equality efforts made to improve the status of women in the world.
  • work environments are not women friendly. The areas that I hear most complaints about are sports media, animation & special effects, music video industry and other specialised sectors. ‘Boys clubs’ are very much alive and actively exclude women and the ‘glass ceiling’ continues to discourage women from staying on their career path. Work-family balance is not a priority for several sectors in the screen industry and the importance of child-care is not understood.
  • lack of representation of women in supporting sectors. With extremely low numbers of women film critics, board members, distributors, exhibitors, selectors and financiers, it is a miracle that any woman is ever able to get a film up.
  • lack of female role models in the industry. A vicious cycle is created when we do not celebrate and promote our talented industry women. There are very few female role models who can inspire the next generation of women filmmakers. This impacts the way women view their own chances of success in certain streams versus others. If we hear success stories of only one woman director and 10 women producers, we might be swayed to pick producing. Also I have met a lot of women who are passionate about directing but feel that the industry is pushing them towards producing, as directing jobs are mostly offered to men.
  • women’s films are viewed as a niche. The industry does not treat screenplays written by women as mainstream stories although women constitute a little more than 50% of our population. With the number of women going to the movies increasing every year, marginalising women’s stories is a big mistake.
  • selection process is not representative. Our cinema goers are 50 percent women and we encourage our scriptwriters to keep the audience in mind at all times, but somehow in our funding and selection process we neglect this rule. The selection process and how ‘merit’ is defined is outdated. In the entertainment sector the focus must be on reaching wider audiences and telling new and fresh stories from interesting perspectives. Yet we continue to play it safe and continue to fund the same people again and again on the basis of past records. I understand that this is a risky business and huge amounts of money are involved but it makes financial sense to give opportunities to women – who might not have the best show-reel in town because they haven’t been given the opportunities and budgets that their male colleagues have received but they are capable of telling untold stories to an audience that is hungry for something different.

SOCIO-CULTURAL ISSUES: When it comes to socio-cultural issues we need to be asking tougher questions. If men with children can make films after films – why not women? Why do we presume that it is the fate of women to give up their professional dreams and passions for the sake of family – this is not expected of men.

  • lack of work-family balance. We are all aware that women are expected to multi-task and look after their homes as well as work. Is there a way in which the screen industry can promote a more family friendly work culture, so that mothers as well as fathers can continue their dreams without missing out too much time with the children? Although more women are going through film school and higher education, fewer women are able to stay in their chosen fields due to concerns in the late twenties and early thirties about starting families and the “biological clock.” So women face an extremely difficult decision – family or career? There is much support needed for mid-career women trying to re-enter the industry after having children. No man or woman should have to sacrifice their dreams for their family or vis-à-vis.
  • influence of popular culture. In order for women to be equally represented in the workplace, women must be portrayed as men are: as lacking sexual objectification. But popular culture continues to do the exact opposite – even our female politicians are objectified and comments are made on their hair and clothes. Popular trends encourage women to dumb themselves down to look sexy – Paris Hilton is just one of many examples. This damages the image of women who are trying to follow their passions in a male-dominated area such as filmmaking and worse of all, young women do not see themselves as fitting certain job profiles.
  • silence about the issues facing women filmmakers. The most worrying phenomenon is that women are not talking about sexism in the industry openly. Is there a hope that if we don’t talk about it, it will cease to exist? Or is there a deeper fear of appearing behind the times and bringing up an issue that only our grandmothers had to endure? I hear a lot of shocking incidents of sexism from women who slowly open up to reveal their problems, but they will never mention it to anyone in power or the men in the industry from fear of being excluded. Feminism has been distorted beyond recognition – and even the most powerful women in the industry are choosing to stay silent from fear of being labelled a feminist. It was very disappointing when Kathryn Bigelow made her Oscar speech and thanked the armed forces numerous times but did not say a word about the women who have worked for years behind the scenes to make that day possible for Kathryn. Not talking about an issue does not make it disappear, it only goes underground and starts to flourish.

 FINANCIAL ISSUES: We pay women less and then say – women need to be more confident. How can they be more confident when they are not making enough income to sustain themselves? Here are some of the financial issues faced by women:

  • pay disparity between men & women. On an average, full-time working women are earning 18% less than men. This number is higher for women in the entertainment industry. Women constitute majority of the volunteers and part-time workers in the industry. Women are also more highly represented in the screen development sector – such as managing guilds, organizations and associations – providing crucial support and programs to the screen industry at very low or no wages.
  • production budgets need to consider special costs. How many production companies include child-care services on location or paid maternity leave?  It will benefit the screen industry and society as a whole if such provisions are made in our budgets.
  • short films to features. Somewhere between making several short films and making their first feature, many women filmmakers have vanished. This is a world-wide trend and has been blamed on conservative financiers and funding bodies who do not trust a woman with large sums of money. This is even though award winning economists have said that women are generally more responsible with money and take fewer risks.
  • more educated, less experienced. Somewhere between film school and continuing to collect degrees, women miss out on actually creating work. A lot of women I meet feel that if they get just one more degree, that they will have a better chance of landing their dream project. Many crucial years are spent on educating themselves rather than building a body of work and making connections in the industry. Again there are many factors – especially financial that contribute to this scenario.

THE MYTHS: Several myths and stereotypes continue to damage careers of women in the screen industry. These are the comments that come up again and again in conversations with industry stakeholders but are not based on any facts whatsoever. I find these myths more challenging than real issue because unfounded fears cannot be removed with rational argument.

MYTH 1: Gender inequality is a thing of the past – These days if you talk about sexism some people think you are from a different planet. There is a misconception being portrayed by popular media and films (such as Harry Potter, Lara Croft) that gender inequality is a problem that died with the feminist movement of the sixties and seventies. This cannot be further from the truth. Although women can vote today and there have been substantial improvements for women in many areas, we still have a long, long way to go before we can claim to have reached gender equality.

MYTH 2: Women lack confidence and give-up easily – This one smells a bit of ‘blame the victim’. Studies clearly show that even women filmmakers who show tremendous confidence in their skills, do not get the opportunities they deserve, simply because others (men and women) do not have confidence in a woman calling the shots and managing a large budget.

MYTH 3: Women are not interested or attracted to certain jobs I wish it were as simple as women simply not picking exciting careers such as cinematography and special effects. The fact is women are very attracted to challenging areas of work, but they are pushed by the industry in other areas and by the time they reach mid-career they are forced to abandon their passion altogether. How is it that the number of women in engineering, sports and air-force has increased if women were weary of challenging careers?

MYTH 4: Women’s films don’t make money at the box-office This myth has been completely debunked by a recent study that showed that when women and men were given the same budget, women made just as much money as men. The reason why people think women make less money is because most big-budget films are given to men.

MYTH 5: Women want to make only arthouse films about serious women’s issuesThis could not be further from the truth. A lot of women filmmakers I meet want to make films about a variety of subjects and in a diverse range of genres ranging from romantic comedies to suspense thrillers, arthouse and horror. The World of Women Film Festival presented by WIFT NSW does a wonderful job of showcasing the diversity of the styles and stories women want to tell.

MYTH 6: Women are too sensitive, not physically strong, not tech savvy – This is a false assumption and these traits should not impact ones chances of making a career as a filmmaker. There are men who are sensitive, physically weak and technophobes but they have had successful careers in the industry.

MYTH 7: Women are happy to give up their dreams for the sake of motherhood – it is always a heartbreaking decision, which no woman should have to take. Men are not faced with such dilemmas – so why is it considered a norm for women? The myth seems to be that women are happy to choose family over filmmaking – this is not a real choice.

MYTH 8: Sexism affects only women Sexism affects the entire industry and the industry is losing out on box office revenue as well as critical acclaim because 50% of our population is not confident that the screen industry is the right place for them. Gender imbalance in different areas of the industry causes problems for women as well as men. For example if most women are pushed from directing to producing – suddenly you will have more women producers and some men might feel like they do not belong. It is important to keep a balance so that men and women can both pursue their passions.

MYTH 9: Younger men are less sexist than the ‘old boys clubs’ – Sometimes the reverse is true. Older men have gone through the sixties and seventies, witnessed ‘bra burning’ and are more aware of women’s rights issues than Gen X and Gen Y. Thanks to popular media, younger men are hardly ever exposed to female role models they can admire or respect. Can we blame them for not knowing how to respect the Paris Hiltons and Kim Kardashians of the world? We have moved from the ‘old boys club’ to the ‘young boys clubs’ – which sometimes hide under the cover of ‘mateships’ but tend to exclude women at workplace.

What is your organisation doing, and what is still pending?

Women in Film and Television NSW is working towards improving the status of women in the screen industry in Australia.

The main initiatives offered by WIFT NSW at the moment are the Media Mentorship for Women (MMW) Program – This program is supported by Screen NSW and it offers one-to-one mentoring in technical areas such as cinematography, editing, sound design and other areas in which women remain under-represented. 

We also have the Media Women in Business (MWIB) Mentoring Program – This program is supported by Industry & Investment NSW; it is designed especially for women who own a screen business and offers one-to-one mentoring, along with five free workshops, two networking events and online resources. Only 15 places are available.

And the World of Women (WOW) Film Festival. It is funded by Screen NSW and Screen Australia and is in its 17th year in 2011.  WOW celebrates films that are made by at least two women in key creative roles and showcases the diversity of women’s cinema.

WIFT NSW is a fantastic platform to support and empower women in the industry. Over the past two decades it has achieved a lot but there is a lot of scope for WIFT NSW to do a lot more and create more opportunities for women. The areas that I feel are still pending include – policy and advocacy, research and statistics, more international exchange, more funding support for emerging women filmmakers, more networking opportunities and changing the image of WIFT so as to reach more men and emerging women filmmakers.

How does Australia compare to other countries where WIFT is present?

Australia is falling behind other developed as well as developing nations when it comes to representation of women on and behind screens. The cities in which WIFT chapters exist tend to be like an oasis for women filmmakers. For example Toronto, NYC, Washington DC and LA all have very active WIFT chapters. Compared to those chapters WIFT NSW is very small. For example I was a member of WIFT in Washington DC for four years and they had several events every month, large budgets and big funding from the US Government, thousands of members, with 30 prcent male members and also had men serving on their 20 member committee. WIFT in DC is not treated as a niche women’s organization but as a mainstream powerhouse and everyone wants to be part of it.

The industry in Australia is much smaller compared to the US and there seems to be a sense that ‘cliques’ in the screen industry make it difficult for any emerging filmmakers- male or female, to get a foot in the door. Also due to geographic isolation, new progressive ideas and studies do not make it into the public discourse until many years later. There is a resistance to change, intellectual debate and anything new or different maybe looked on with suspicion or considered ‘Un-Australian’. A mind-set change is needed to ensure that the voices of women in the screen industry are not drowned by the deafening silence on the issue of sexism. The hope is that the existence and support of WIFT NSW will directly empower women filmmakers in Australia and with the latent potential we have in this country, there is no doubt in my mind that Australian women will bring home numerous Oscars in the coming years!

Why is gender equality important in the screen industry?

To me gender equality is first and foremost a human rights issue. It is unacceptable and inhuman that anyone should have to give up their passion and career simply because the system and society is biased against them. All dreams are equal and deserve a fair go. At the moment the screen industry is not a level playing field – which leads to wasted talent, resistance to reaching their full potential, stories remain untold and myths & stereotypes continue to be propagated. Here are some reasons why gender equality is important for both men and women in the Screen Industry:

  • To ensure that dreams of talented filmmakers of making films are not shattered and years of hard work does not go waste just because of the gender they happened to have been born in.
  • To ensure that the industry is able to develop and nurture a wider pool of exceptional talent, crew and technicians to chose from for diverse projects and more work is produced as a result of this.
  • To ensure that the screen industry is a level playing field so that exceptional talent and creativity is able to reach it’s full potential and the quality of films produced improves every year.
  • To ensure that the diversity on and behind our screens reflects the diversity of our contemporary audiences and our cinema is more relatable.
  • To ensure that filmmakers receive the recognition and awards that they deserve based on their craft and are not denied professional fulfillment because of any gender bias.
  • To ensure that sexism, stereotypes and misrepresentation are not propagated about men or women.

In your opinion, why are some specific occupations (directors, producers, production designer, etc) apparently more attractive to women while others (cinematographers, visual effects, post-production) are not?

Lack of interest in some specific occupations – is one the myths that surrounds the topic of equal representation. In the past 4 years, as program director for the WIFT NSW mentorship programs, I have met numerous women from the Australian Screen industry and I have not sensed the slightest lack of interest – in fact I am amazed at the diversity of specialisations women are passionate about from special effects and stop motion to colourists and cinematography. It is a misconception that women do not want to pick challenging roles in the industry or go for the easier career options. Like men, women also enjoy adventure and exciting career options. So although the dreams and interests of men and women might be the same, the disparity begins to emerge when it is time to turn a dream into a career. This is where WIFT NSW comes in – to bridge the gap between dreams and reality, passion and career pathways.

Now for a moment if we believe that majority women are not interested in certain occupations, do we just accept that and say ‘too bad’ or do we research and try to figure out why certain jobs are less attractive to women?  Once we have figured out the reasons, we will need to implement strategies to make these occupations more attractive to women. For example, more awareness about these under-represented areas can be provided at high-school, before girls have made up their mind about what career they would like to pursue and making the work environment more gender neutral.

Any other comments you would like to add?

That I am passionate about equality but I am not a feminist. This is because I would care as much if men were being treated unfairly in the industry. I am extremely grateful to the feminist movement that has made it possible for me to even dream of being a filmmaker but I do not see the world as a male vs female power struggle. I love diverse point of views and genuinely believe that the screen industry will benefit by bringing about a balance in the male and female perspectives by putting some simple steps in place.

1.     We need more female as well as male voices that are not afraid to talk about gender issues. Men and Women are both part of the problem and they are both part of the solution. We need more men to come forward as role models to other men on how to support women in the industry. Sexism also denies men the potential for full human development. Occupational segregation by sex denies employment opportunities to men who wish to enter certain fields that might be considered women’s domain such as costume design, make-up, producer’s assistant, unit managers and so on. Eradication of sexism would benefit such men. We also need emerging as well as established women filmmakers to fearlessly speak up and demanding equality. ‘Us vs Them’ has never worked and will never work. WIFT NSW wants to work with men to bring about change. This is not a power struggle or a blame game – it is a human rights issue and needs to be taken seriously.

2.     We would like to encourage all industry organizations, educational institutions and funding bodies to be proactive in supporting women in the industry – to be aware of their own employee, funding recipient, student, board and member demographic and actively collect internal statistics and compare them annually to see if there is an improvement and which areas need more attention. For example, if not a single female student was taken into the cinematography course, then why and what can be done to change that? There is a definite demand to make more women’s films and producers are constantly complaining about how we do not have any women directors and cinematographers to choose from. So the industry and audience demand exists, we need to make sure our supply chains are working.

3.     Broadcast media, magazines and newspapers could help bring about change in perception by promoting more women filmmakers and their films. Instead of talking about how a filmmaker’s hair and dress looks, journalists need to be educated on how to appreciate women’s cinema without making sexist comments. The industry needs to celebrate our female talent – not in comparison to men – but in their own right. Film festivals could help by presenting women’s films as part of their main program instead of putting them all in a separate special session. We do not label films made by men such as ‘Transformers’ or ‘Avatar’ as men’s films, then why do we view women’s films as niche?

4.     Education and awareness about feminist theory seems to be missing from our film schools and courses. Gender studies should be made compulsory so that everyone who comes out of film school or TAFE understands the concept of ‘male gaze’ and other feminist theory concepts that are imperative to telling women’s stories.

5.     To encourage more opportunities for women behind the scenes we need to provide more funding for women screenplay writers. This will open up avenues for the possibility of a woman director, cinematographer or editor to be included in the project. To ensure realistic representation of women on screen, the script-writers and funding bodies could perform the simple ‘Bechdel Test’ on screenplays before a project is green-lit. The Bechdel Test is a simple way to gauge the active presence of female characters in feature films and just how well rounded and complete those roles are.

6.     All guilds, associations, government agencies and any government funded projects that provide workshops/mentoring/attachment/internship programs should monitor how many of these places are being offered to women and ensure that at least around 50% of these opportunities are provided to women applicants and encourage more applications from women. If not, then these programs are actually making gender inequality worse. WIFT NSW cannot do it all alone and provide support for 50% of the industry, we need the help of all industry organizations to create adequate opportunities for women.

7.     The government could create guidelines for a positive and inclusive workplace environment and distribute it to all media companies, TV networks and agencies to help reduce the ‘boys club’ culture.

8.     In 2010 the ASX companies started an innovative way to monitor the lack of women on company boards called the ‘If not Why not?’ policy. This easy to implement policy simple requires all ASX companies to provide reasons if their boards do not include a certain percentage of women. Applying the ‘if not, why not’ principle to self-regulate production companies, shows, projects and TV channels and so on could be a good way to reduce gender imbalance without having to introduce a strict quota system.

9.     A manager trained in diversity within human resources of larger companies and agencies could be beneficial in making sure that we recruit from women and minorities in a representative fashion. For example Sony Pictures Entertainment has a ‘diversity officer’ to help redress inequality.

10. Equal wage for equal work needs to be implemented more strictly in the entertainment industry. Although advances in educational parity might suggest that women are converting that academic success into the professional world, the statistics show a different picture. A year out of college, women earn 80% of what men make and 10 years later only 69%. These numbers are disempowering but unfortunately, no sizable outcry exists within society to resurrect this wrong.

Finally, I want to take this opportunity to thank the men and women in the Australian film industry who are not afraid to speak up about gender inequality and are real champions for change and have supported WIFT NSW over the years. We hope you will continue to be part of the WIFT NSW family.

For more information on WIFT head to their website


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