Women in the Screen Industry: A woman’s work is never done

Velinda WardellThe Australian screen industry is full of talented and successful women, but this doesn’t mean gender imbalance is a thing of the past. Georgina Pearson writes.

Gender equality is an age-old debate; one that’s been analysed and pulled apart countless times before. Yet as women in the Australian screen industry continue to deliver on a global stage we must dispute its relevance – is there a significant gender imbalance within the industry, or has this argument become a moot point, questioned merely as a matter of principle?
When the list of films eligible for the Australian Film Institute Awards was announced last year, AFI CEO Damian Trewhella pointed out that eight out of the 19 titles were directed by women, arguing that “in an international industry where women are still significantly under-represented, Australia is heading in the right direction.”
And the Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association (ASTRA) followed closely– declaring that the subscription TV sector has reached near gender equality amongst its 4,643 strong employees.
When Encore asked a number of industry bodies whether they knew the exact percentage of women working in their respective sectors, the answer was negative. It seemed that different sources had different statistics and opinions about the situation of women in the screen industry, yet for almost two decades no definitive research had been conducted in the area – not until associate professor of cinema studies at RMIT University Lisa French decided something needed to be done to address the information gap.
French is currently undertaking a study researching women in the screen industry – the first since the AFC/National Working Party report Portrayal of Women in the Media, in 1992. The study has received support from Screen Australia, Women In Film and Television, producer and RMIT adjunct professor Sue Maslin, the Australian Writers’ Guild, the Australian Film Institute, the Victorian Women’s Trust and the Australian Teachers of Media (ATOM).
French told Encore that whilst Australian women are continuing to succeed, there is still a huge gender discrepancy.
“Gender equality has not been achieved in the Australian screen industry,” she explained. “While Australian women such as Catherine Martin, Jan Chapman, Jane Scott Jill Bilcock, Laura Jones, Mandy

Walker and Janet Patterson shine internationally, women continue to be a minority in every position in the screen industry in Australia and their representation as a numerical percentage is actually shrinking, not increasing in many industry jobs.” French’s Girls on Film survey was completed by 135 people, out of which 114 were women. Her aim is to map gender imbalances, the possible reasons behind them, and then use the research as an evidence base for action.

So far, French has found that although the overall industry view regarding gender developments was optimistic, new figures from the survey indicate otherwise. “There is gender inequity when it comes to views on improvements for women in the last five years – only a fifth of women believe there has been improvement compared to nearly half the men. No men believe the experience had deteriorated for women, but 13 percent of women indicated this.”

Kate E. Wills, board director for the Australian Production Design Guild (APDG) agrees there is a long way to go before we reach gender parity, and suggests this may be due to a lack of support for women
with families. “We have fundamentally led women to believe we live in an equal society in terms of employment opportunities, only for them to discover that it’s still the 1950s once there is any thought of having a family. Girls are not made fully aware of the ramifications when they are choosing what they would like to do as a career. There is still a long way to go before the pendulum stops swinging and a true balance is reached so that women don’t feel guilty going to work, or inadequate staying at home.”
Ana Tiwary, program director for the Australian section of Women in Film and Television (WIFT) also questions the absence of family support. “We are all aware that women are expected to multi-task and look after their homes as well as work. 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. “
Screenwriter and producer Jenny Lewis takes a different angle – it’s the competitiveness between women that reflect a gender imbalance and the distinction shouldn’t be between a woman or man, it should be between the work produced: “If there are fewer women in the screen industry than we’d like, then perhaps it’s because when a certain type of woman makes it she is reluctant to give other women a leg up. I have seen this scenario time and time again. Some women in high positions are threatened by talented women and use their power to undermine and exclude. Certainly these women in power will give jobs to other females, but only if they don’t pose any threat whatsoever. The result is minimally talented females getting important positions which undermine the entire cause. This insecurity is our gender’s greatest enemy, and the unhealthy competitiveness between women is also present in most of our female onscreen characters.”
Lewis told Encore gender equality is far from black and white. “The issue of gender equality isn’t as straightforward and un-political as it seems. I want our country to be put on the map as top notch story
tellers and I’ll take whatever gender we can get to achieve that. I’m not about to champion for women just for the sake of it – they need to be the right women, just like we need the right men.”

But gender equality in the Australian screen industry is vital to its future – and not just because of women’s rights, or the need to look good on paper. With the global industry rapidly evolving the challenge is to be constantly producing new projects that stand tall internationally – and a collective portfolio produced by both genders offer a uniqueness that is only achieved by having different perspectives. Ron Johanson, president of the Australian Cinematographers Society, agrees. “Our industry needs to be constantly stimulated with new thoughts, new ways to do things and stay motivated and balanced across a broad cross section of the industry. We cannot let past bias influence what we do in these current times or into the future. There is a place for all genders, all philosophies at the table, so we can learn and grow together.
“Women bring another view, another perspective, in all areas. They challenge you to listen to their opinions and their ideas,” said Johanson.
French also believes a woman angle is important. “In terms of content, we’d miss out on the range of stories and perspectives, as well a the aesthetic approaches of half the population if women didn’t
get to contribute, and we wouldn’t have films like The Piano, The Well, The Last Days of Chez Nous, and Looking for Alibrandi — all written, produced and directed by women.” But she believes the
discrimination doesn’t just end with the female gender. “Men are equally discriminated against because of gendered ghettos in the industry, because their choices will also be limited, and in line with historic workforce patterns in the industry—this is a loss of creative potential.”


Job stereotyping is another issue that perhaps limits the number of females working in traditionally male roles. However, Tiwary argues the belief that women go for less-technical career options is simply not true: “Lack of interest in some specific occupations is one the myths that surrounds the topic of equal representation. In the as program director for the WIFT NSW mentorship programs, I have met numerous women from the Australian screen industry and 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.”
Johanson says that there are more women than ever taking on specialties that were previously male-oriented: “There still exists a stereo typical approach in some fields, but I have to say that each day more women are filling the roles in what has been a male-dominated area. In cinematography, there are more women studying and breaking into the field than ever before.”
Lewis believes that stereotyping is only natural in such a young industry, but as we reach gender parity it will become a thing of the past: “It wasn’t so long ago that there were none, or very few female directors and producers, so gradually women are proving themselves in a variety of jobs in the business. It stands to reason that the jobs that are more traditionally feminine, the creative and organisational type jobs would be explored first, while the traditionally male, i.e., physical or mathematical will be further down the line. But as our conditioning fades and true equality does kick in, the line between what’s typically male and female will become more and more blurred.”
Jason Ballantine, president of the Australian Screen Editors Guild (ASEG) also disagrees that women are less attracted to more technical roles: “I don’t agree with this statement as it does not pertain to my experiences in the film industry. I wouldn’t go as far as saying there is a 50/50 split down the line, but go into an edit suite and you will find a woman working whether it is as editor, postproduction
supervisor, assistant editor, facility coordinator and, occasionally, a visual effects designer, sound designer, sound editor, composer or grader, etc. Within the ASEG, some of the most awarded and consistently working editors are female, without a doubt.”
A fundamental concern contributing to the gender discrepancy is pay disparity – and Tiwary raises a critical point. “We pay women less and then say ‘Women need to be more confident’. How can they be more confident when they are not earning enough to sustain themselves? On average, full-time working women are earning 18 percent less than men; this number is higher for 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, organisations and associations – providing crucial support and programs to the screen industry at very low or no wages.”

On an international level Australia is holding its own. The head of development at Screen Australia, Martha Coleman, told Encore that, in her experience, “the ‘glass ceiling’ was more noticeable in the UK than in Australia. From my own unscientific observations, many women I knew working in the screen industries in London were not working to their full capacity, whereas in Australia the majority of women I know are working to their full capacity, with many women across the sector holding very senior, decision making positions.”
Bran Nue Dae and First Australians director Rachel Perkins agrees. “I think it’s more advanced than other countries, just by looking at the Academy Awards last year when they were so overwhelmed at a woman (Kathryn Bigelow) winning best director. That hardly comes up in our awards; people aren’t really that fussed.”
But Tiwary disagrees, adding that representation of women behind the screen industry in Australia is declining: “Australia is falling behind other developed as well as developing nations. 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 – including 30 percent male members. They also had men serving on their 20-member committee. WIFT in DC is not treated as a niche women’s organisation 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 may be looked on with suspicion or considered un-Australian,” said Tiwary.
What can be done to correct the situation? To create an equal structure that will encourage not only women, but men as well, screen industry bodies need to take an in-depth look into what their organisation can do to ensure that discrimination, stereotypes and misconceptions become transient – and many already have.
For example, the APDG has six volunteer directors, three of whom are women. “We also have an awards committee and five of these six volunteer members are women,” explained Wills. “In an industry that provides all different avenues of media, it is arguably important for both genders to have input as this is what constitutes the voice that the public ultimately view.”
Cindy Clarkson chairperson for the Victorian Committee of the Australian Screen Editors Guild believes that actively promoting women is important. “Not only should the ASEG promote those who are successful editors, but those who are up and coming, or women who are assisting or grading. We have a mentorship scheme which the ASEG is currently reigniting; we can encourage women to seek this
opportunity by promoting it widely within the industry.”
According to Tiwary, gender equality is an issue that can’t be ignored in any industry, because it’s 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”
Women working behind the Australian screen industry are continuing to shine both locally and internationally but it is clear that gender equality is still a vitally important and valid debate –for both women and men.


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