Not many topics make people squirm more than gender-based quota systems, but after hearing significant statistics about women in the film and television industries, a somewhat ambivalent panel at Cannes started thinking more seriously about their necessity. An unfortunately titled Cannes-hosted conference, "Girls Just Want to Have Film," was sponsored by the European Audiovisual Observatory (EAO).
The full-house session was framed by summary presentations of three extensive reports on women in the industry conducted by the EAO, the CNC of France, and the British Film Institute (BFI). Other European countries could only envy the depth of these reports, all of which confirmed everyone's worst fears about the deplorably low percentages of women in top creative roles. The findings demonstrate the grim reality of women averaging 16.1% of the director chairs in Europe from 2003-2013, with France on top with 33% of sophomore works directed by female filmmakers, although calculated on the basis of population the Netherlands actually ranks highest. But the panelists noted that even in a gender-progressive country like Sweden, the statistics are pathetic. In the UK there is a distressingly shrinking percentage of women directing drama in television, currently standing at about 13%.
As in the US and Canada, European women dominate in more traditionally "female" roles, such as costuming and make-up. And they fare slightly better as producers than they do as directors, but only slightly. Otherwise it's a resoundingly European man's world. Although the Strasbourg-based EAO report offers statistics on the full range of roles in 9,349 films, the focus of the conference was on directing, and why women continue to be left out of the top creative jobs in both film and television.
French boasts of top-ranking status notwithstanding, here we are at Cannes with only two women directors in official competition, as Cannes jury chair Jane Campion has now famously observed. The cold facts delivered by the EAO panel challenged anyone under the impression that things were getting better for women filmmakers. A second panel of European representatives explored the whys of the situation, and aimed to be more encouraging about how to remedy the sad trends. The extraordinary domestic demands of women's lives were briskly dismissed by BFI panelist Beryl Richards as a lame excuse. Just do it, she said. A small percentage of time is actually ever spent shooting. The ramp-up to the event itself happens largely at home, anyway. There are no excuses, she insisted.
Finally, the panel turned to the contentious issue of quotas. If things are going to change, they need to do so by ring-fencing top industry jobs for women, it was suggested, and, possibly, targeting women for financial support. The European industry works on a foundational public funding model and so mandating quotas is possible, if there's political and public will. Tilde Corsi of Italy admitted that before she saw the statistical findings of these reports she was loath to support a quota system. Now she is thinking they are absolutely necessary.
Noreen Golfman is a professor of film studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland and founding director and chair of the board of the St John's International Women's Film Festival in Newfoundland, Canada, now in its 25th year.