The invisible woman: film’s gender bias laid bare

Three recent reports conclusively prove that female filmmakers are underrepresented across all sectors of the international industry, and urge institutional change to redress the balance.


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Bridesmaids (2011)

Bridesmaids (2011)

It’s now impossible to claim ignorance of the gender inequality that runs rife through the film industry. Campaigning on the issue has been intensifying, with luminaries such as Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lawrence speaking out about their own experiences, and the yearly problem of a lack of female directors at Cannes brings with it a fresh round of debate. Yet while Cannes 2016’s 21-title Competition lineup features just three female directors, and only seven women amongst its 56 Official Selection films, to point the finger at such festivals is to ignore the fact that their decisions are a consequence, not a cause, of the industry’s inherent problem with women.

Published in early May, Directors UK’s extensive report on the current state of female directors confronts this issue head on, exploring how – and, more importantly, why – female filmmakers are being shortchanged by the industry. It not only confirms that the situation is dire but highlights the fact that, in some areas, things are getting progressively worse.

These dispiriting findings are compounded by two further reports, one carried out by a European Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded team at the University of Southampton and one by the European Women’s Audiovisual Network (EWA), which reveal that that the dismal state of affairs is replicated across all sectors of the industry, and throughout Europe.


Cut out of picture

The Directors UK report, entitled Cut Out of the Picture: A study into the gender and inequality amongst directors within the UK film industry and authored by industry analyst Stephen Follows, examines a decade’s-worth of data to understand how female filmmakers are faring in the industry at large. Looking at all 2,591 films made in the UK between 2005 and 2014, and taking in data from BFI, HMRC and box-office revenues along with critical and audience reception from the IMDb and review-aggregate sites, it paints a pretty bleak picture.

While the report’s top line finding that just 13.6 per cent of working film directors in the UK over the decade of study were women may be unsurprising, other revelations are more eye-opening. It systematically picks apart the arguments often used to explain the lack of female directors, finding that audiences and critics tend to prefer female-directed films, that such films don’t fare any worse at the box office and that, crucially, women are actively pursuing top level careers in the industry – proven by the finding that women make up 50.1 per cent of film students in the UK, and account for 49.4 per cent of entry-level runners and production assistants.

Credit: from Directors UK’s report Cut Out of the Picture: A study into the gender and inequality amongst directors within the UK film industry


No lack of ambition

The fact that women are actively pursuing film-industry education and careers in equal numbers as men is also correlated by the EWA report Where are the women directors in European films? Published in February 2016, the report is a result of two years’ research across seven European countries (Austria, Croatia, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden and UK), and finds that there is a significant shortfall from the proportion of women entering the industry (44 per cent) to that of female directors actually working within it (just 24 per cent).

The resulting observation is clear: the lack of female filmmakers cannot be attributed to a lack of drive, but to the fact that they are being overlooked by the industry once they are working within it.

This is further validated by Directors UK statistics regarding the number of female directors at each stage of a career, from shorts and low-budget films to mid-range movies and studio blockbusters. The report’s statistics on the disappearance of women are stark: while 16.1 per cent of directors of films budgeted at less than £150,000 were female, women accounted for just 3.3 per cent of films with a budget of £30 million.

“The workforce is 50/50 at the point where people enter the industry,” Directors UK Andrew Chowns explained to Screen International. “But at every stage of their career as a director, women are being removed to such a progressive extent that by the time you get to major features [the number of women] is absolutely negligible.”

The cast of The Avengers Assemble (2010) assemble at Comic Con

The cast of The Avengers Assemble (2010) assemble at Comic Con
Credit: Ronald Woan CC BY-SA 2.0


Public funding support

It’s not only on major features where women are being sidelined, however, The Directors UK report makes the surprising discovery that they are also being increasingly overlooked in favour of their male counterparts by the UK’s major public funders.

In the decade of study, just 21.7 per cent of films receiving public funding had a female director. Worse, public funding support for films with female directors decreased significantly over that period, from 32.9 per cent in 2008 to just 17 per cent in 2014.

It’s worth noting, however, that the report looks at films in production up until summer 2014, before the BFI introduced their Three Ticks diversity initiative, since been revised and refocused as the BFI Diversity Standards.

“In the 2015-16 full funding year the number of BFI-supported feature films directed by women rose to 34 per cent, or 11 out of the 32 directors across the films we funded, our aim being that with further effort this will continue to rise,” said BFI Film Fund director Ben Roberts in response to the findings.

This lack of public funding support for female filmmakers isn’t confined to the UK, however. The EWA report highlights a similar trend across the seven countries studied, finding that 84 per cent of available public funding resources go into films that are directed by men.

Wuthering Heights (2011)

Wuthering Heights (2011)


Sector-wide problem

While the prime focus of the gender debate may be female directors, women are woefully underrepresented across all sectors of the industry. This has been highlighted in both the Directors UK report, which finds that the majority of women can be found within artistic departments such as costume, production and make-up design, and a new report funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, whose authors, based at the University of Southampton, are spending four years researching the contemporary history of women working in the UK film industry.

Their most recent research, Calling the Shots, looks at the numbers of men and women working in the key roles of director, writer, producer, executive producer, cinematographer and editor across all films produced in the UK during 2015. They found that women made up only 20 per cent of individuals across all of these roles and that, shockingly, 25 per cent of all films studied had no women at all in any of those roles.

When women were present in those key roles during 2015, they accounted for very small numbers, making up just 13 per cent of directors, 20 per cent of screenwriters, 27 per cent of producers, 18 per cent of executive producers, 17 per cent of editors and 7 per cent of cinematographers.

The report also finds that just 7 per cent of those women were of Black, Asian or Ethnic Minority identity, meaning that BAME women made up less than 1.5 per cent of all key personnel on UK films in production in 2015.

Both Directors UK and the University of Southampton agree that films with women in senior decision-making roles, such as directors or producers, are far more likely to have females in other key positions. The latter report, for example, found that 74 per cent of films with a female director also had a female producer, and that 69 per cent of female screenwriters worked on a film with at least one female producer.

Carol (2015) screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, actor Rooney Mara, director Todd Haynes, actor Cate Blanchett and producers Elizabeth Karlsen and Christine Vachon at a London Film Festival press conference

Carol (2015) screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, actor Rooney Mara, director Todd Haynes, actor Cate Blanchett and producers Elizabeth Karlsen and Christine Vachon at a London Film Festival press conference
Credit: Gareth Cattermole for Getty Images


Call to action

There surely can be no arguing with the findings of all three reports or, indeed, the many other similar studies. The European Audiovisual Observatory’s 2014 Female Directors in European Film Productions, for example, found that just 16.3 per cent of European films made between 2003 and 2012 were directed by a woman. And recent research from the Center for the Study of Women in Television in Film at San Diego State University found that women accounted for just 19 per cent of directors, writers, producers, editors and cinematographers across the 250 top-grossing movies in the USA during 2015.

In the face of such shocking, and oft-replicated, numbers there can also be no arguing with their shared assertion that proactive change is needed to redress the balance, particularly as it’s becoming increasingly clear that the industry is unable – if not unwilling – to course correct on its own.

Despite the fact the awareness of gender equality has been widespread, and much discussed, for well over a decade, the status quo has remained resolutely unchanging. The Directors UK report attributes this to the industry’s ‘unconscious systemic bias’ towards men, which is subscribed to by its primary gatekeepers and decision-makers and results in a perpetual skewing towards male filmmakers behind the camera and male stories in front of it.

That report is bold in its claim that only institutional change can make a difference, suggesting a target of 50 per cent gender parity for all public funding of film by 2020 and the development of UK tax relief to establish formalised diversity requirements. These recommendations have been met with widespread support, with many pointing to the success of the Swedish Film Institute which achieved its target gender parity in public funding in 2014 and have been reaping the rewards at festivals and the box office ever since.

“Equal numbers of men and women enter this industry, but women are relentlessly squeezed out,” says Kate Kinninmont, Chief Executive of Women in Film and Television UK in response to Calling the Shots. “Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women have the hardest time of all. It’s the film industry itself which suffers from this, with narrowing of its vision and an impoverishment of its creativity. Sweden has acted successfully to remedy this by ensuring that public money in the industry is divided fairly. Canada and Australia are following suit. It’s time for the UK to act. What are we waiting for?”

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