Kathryn Bigelow

It seems like everyone’s talking about women right now. With the 2012 presidential election just a day away with a demographic breakdown of male to female voters at 48% to 52%, women’s voices are more important than ever in American election history, and both parties are courting women aggressively.

In fact, things SEEM to be looking up everywhere for women—even in film & television. Since 2010, when Kathryn Bigelow was the first female to win the Best Director Oscar, the news media abound with articles about how women directors are gaining credibilty.

But it simply isn’t true. While celebrations are wonderful, they may lead women to a false sense of confidence. Recent statistics clearly show that there are NOT more women in film and television. And while Kathryn Bigelow is indeed an inspiration to all directors, male and female, she cannot solve the disparity problem.

Media is America’s most influential global export, but in terms of film and television content, it comes almost exclusively from the perspectives of male directors. The ratios are staggering: according to recent DGA statistics, 95% of feature films are directed by men, and just 5% by women. Episodic TV is nearly as bad, with the male-to-female ratio of working directors at 86% to 14%.

If women are not directing film and television content, it means half of the voices of the American population are silenced and half the visions are suppressed. Ending discrimination against women directors is vital to establishing a society of equality and diversity of perspective. It is not just the validity of the female point of view around the world and basic fairness that gives this issue such immediacy, but if we as a nation are to maintain a moral upper hand in geopolitical affairs, we must at the very least obey our own laws protecting equality.

As former DGA President Martha Coolidge recently said of directors: “For guys competition is fierce, but for women you are more likely to win the lottery.”Why is the gender gap among film and television directors so gaping and so blatant, and why does gender disparity remain static year after year?

The studios and the Directors Guild have been very busy in the past 30 years paying lip service to the need for more women directors, but lip service is all they have paid. While nearly every other industry in the United States has been making dramatic strides toward gender parity, the entertainment industry power players have been fundamentally negligent of this effort.

As a result, today’s Hollywood is often regarded as America’s most visible industry-wide bastion of discrimination against women. Changing that could help alter global perceptions of all social, economic, and geopolitical concerns, and not least of all images of women and girls. Initiating this change, however, will require that the DGA join forces with the studios to create equality for women directors.

Unfortunately, there seems to be an institutional bias within the DGA that prevents effective movement toward parity for women. For instance, in the 1980’s the DGA filed a discrimination class-action lawsuit against three major studios on behalf of their women (and minority) director members. However, the guild was denied class certification on the grounds that some of its own policies put it in conflict with the very interests of the women plaintiffs who had initiated the complaint in the first place. Judge Pamela Rymer postponed DGA classification in the case, stalling the lawsuit indefinitely.

Therefore, because of entrenched policies within the DGA itself, the guild was not allowed to proceed with the case. While the suit could not continue, the fact that the DGA initiated the legal action at all resulted in a dramatic positive change to the employment landscape for women and minority directors. In 1979, women director’s employment comprised a minute percentage of the male-to-female ration, yet thanks to the lawsuit, that number grew to almost 16% female employment by the mid nineties.

The change did not last, however. In the wake of that hindered legal effort, the guild and the studios made a joint promise, not to employ more women directors, but to use “Good Faith Efforts” to try to increase their employment numbers. The three words, “Good Faith Efforts,” along with a complete lack of goals and timetables, rang the death knell to hopes for parity for women directors.

So now thirty years later, the playing field for women directors has returned to a near-vertical tilt. A simple examination and evaluation of the prevailing DGA-studio approaches to increasing job opportunities for women directors clearly reveals why they have failed. To fulfill those “Good Faith Efforts,” they instituted diversity programs intended to fulfill their promise.

Over the years, the DGA, in conjunction with the studios, has experimented with a variety of TV studio directing fellowships to help its women (and minority members)—with mixed results. In fact, the programs have been widely acknowledged to be completely ineffective in budging the numbers of women directors at all.

The few studios that do anything at all for diversity directors are to be roundly commended. However, while the Disney/ABC-DGA Directing Program launched in 2001 boasts “one of the longest-running programs of its kind in the entertainment industry,” completion of the program by the selected fellows has resulted in relatively few actual directing jobs for its participants. Equally disappointing results have emerged for those who have completed the HBO-DGA Television Directing Fellowship Program.

Why do the DGA-studio directing fellowships fail to deliver significant results? The DGA is a craft guild and since the Middle Ages trades have used guilds to provide apprenticeships. Skilled, experienced artisans handed down expertise to the next generation in a wide variety of professions from the arts to banking. When we analyze the success of mentorships throughout history, what emerges as a key-contributing factor is the presence of reciprocity and mutual benefit.