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To Sue Or Not to Sue: What History Teaches Us About Equality in Hollywood

Features
by Maria Giese
January 20, 2014 11:17 AM
2 Comments
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Director Maria Giese
Director Maria Giese
When the Director Guild of America's Women's Steering Committee was officially established in 1979, women comprised just 0.5% of episodic TV director employment. One half of one percent! According to Guild lore, meetings opened with the words "Fellow Directors and Mrs. Lupino." At some general meetings, the audience was referred to as "Gentlemen," until the few women members in attendance complained. 
 
By 1979, a few more women had gained membership in the Guild, but they frequently found themselves unable to land jobs. Frustrated, six of them (the "Original Six") began assembling statistics.
 

The following year, they presented the results of their research to Michael Franklin, then National Executive Secretary of the DGA. Stunned by the numbers, he agreed that something had to be done. Franklin was a labor leader in the old sense, and deeply concerned with discrimination against women members of the DGA. He inspired the Guild's conscience. He brought the Board and the Guild to a higher level of responsibility and accountability, struggling for a higher vision for all workers.
 
Franklin made it clear that the Guild would support the Original Six, and together they went before the DGA's National Board to request the formation of a DGA Women's Committee. He also tried to get the studios and TV production companies to improve the hiring of women DGA members. The Guild, in conjunction with the Women's Committee, set up meeting after meeting to encourage production companies to interview women members. They circulated directors' reels, discussed possible "set-asides" (a specific number of directing slots for women) -- all to no avail.

These meetings were based only on voluntary compliance and went on for a year with negligible results. The studios and production companies were intransigent. Franklin became convinced that the only effective strategy would be a legal one.  
 
After one final attempt, when none of the invited executives showed up for a scheduled meeting, a fed-up Franklin made his historic decision to launch the groundbreaking DGA-led, class-action lawsuit against three major studios in 1983. It was time to sue, and the Guild would lead the suit.

The legal action was groundbreaking because women directors in Hollywood had never before used U.S. civil-rights laws to challenge gender discrimination.
 
For laymen, the leader of a class-action suit is a named party who brings the suit on behalf of other potential class representatives. In the case of this lawsuit, the women did not have the financial means to hire legal representation sufficient to take on the studio giants. Therefore, the DGA very generously offered to take on the lawsuit and act as the leading named plaintiff.
 
However, a legal requirement of a class representative is that it must hold interests that are typical of the rest of the class, and it must be able to fairly and adequately represent all other members of the class. It was because of these requirements -- and not on the merits of the case -- that in 1985, Judge Pamela Rymer refused to assign class-action status to the case at that point in time and disqualified the Guild from leading the class. The court found that some of the Guild's own policies discriminated against the very women they were representing, which put the guild in a position of conflict of interest.
 
Significantly, Rymer supported the validity of the case and stated that it could continue without the DGA. Unfortunately, the women did not have the financial means to finance the lawsuit and were forced to step down. Even so, this legal action led to a striking surge in the number of women TV directors, as well as the creation of numerous DGA-Studio Agreements promoting diversity hiring.

By 1995, just 10 years later, the percentage of TV episodes directed by women had risen from 0.5% to 16%. Sixteen percent! This was certainly thanks to the crucial support that Michael Franklin and the DGA leadership provided women Guild members at that time.
 
As Franklin himself stated in an article entitled "The Man Behind the Women's Movement at the Guild," "there were new people in the positions of leadership within the Guild. People like Gil Cates, Gene Reynolds, Jay Sandrich, Boris Sagal, Norman Jewison, Tom Donovan, John Avildsen, Marilyn Jacobs, Enid Roth, Elia Kazan, Jane Schimel, Karl Genus, John Rich, Arthur Hiller and Jackie Cooper. They merged together to support the [Women's] committee, authorize funds and really move ahead in a broad front" (DGA News 1990/1991).

Unbelievably, thirt
y years after the landmark lawsuit, the number of working women directors in the DGA has gone down. Today, only 12-14% of TV episodes are directed by women -- an unfortunate reversal during a time of unprecedented industry growth and abundance, particularly in television. Why?

* * *

The problem lies in part in the squandered opportunities by the individuals who are in leadership positions in the Directors Guild of America
. The DGA is a highly respected and powerful organization. When the DGA speaks, the entertainment world listens. It is the only entity in America that effectively has the power to demand gender equity among directors in our industry because its primary function is to represent the creative and economic rights of directors.
 
By its own admission, the DGA is the richest, most powerful Guild in our industry. It is a well-funded organization that routinely enters into collective bargaining negotiations with studios and producers on behalf of directors, and it is the union that women directors who are already professionals belong to. Our current DGA Executive Director, Jay Roth, is a civil-rights expert and a brilliant lawyer who
has successfully led negotiations on the Guild's major collective-bargaining agreements seven times since becoming National Executive Director in 1995.
 
The DGA-Studio Collective Bargaining Negotiations take place every three years, and Roth has succeeded in making many great forward strides for the interests of all Guild members. In the recent 2014 round of negotiations, the Guild, under his leadership, did include diversity as one of its four key issues. Some advancements were made, including making it easier to arbitrate discrimination in certain situations. For this achievement, he, and those who worked with him, should be applauded.
 
Unfortunately, women remain buried within the general category of "diversity." Under the new contract, the studios could continue to advance diversity without advancing women. In fact, there is no legal obligation for them to advance women in any way; the only legal requirement is that diversity hiring improves. So women must rely on the good faith of studios and producers to increase gender equity in hiring. But as we know, in the case of women TV and feature directors, that good faith has not gone far and in fact has resulted in a reversal of numbers.
 
In order for the agreement to benefit women, it must specifically refer to women of all ethnicities as a separate class, in their own right. If women are to be aided in this reach-out, then their employment numbers need to be measured specifically and tracked. That can only be accomplished if the Guild and the studios specifically break out women as a separate class.

Why do we have this paradox of declining stats even as the world has supposedly become more enlightened about gender equity?
The issue may point to a sea change in the new media landscape. Originally, the Guild cared about a sense of equality and fair play. Has that been lost or buried under more pragmatic concerns, for instance the DGA Health Plan? New media? Piracy? Wages? These issues have taken precedence in the past negotiations over the issues of diversity, and especially the dismal progress of women DGA members.
 
It also may be true that the first surge in female director employment was easier coming from the ridiculously low numbers of the 1970s, and after a decade or so, a certain complacency may have set in. And it may be true that while the male membership of the DGA (in general an enlightened and liberal body) favored gender equity in theory, they may have balked at the prospect of sacrificing a piece of the pie. After all, director employment is a zero-sum game to some extent.
 
Nonetheless, the subsequent growth of the industry should certainly have resulted in more pie to share around. But putting food on the table is a priority for artists, and a certain amount of selfishness can't be helped. For instance, even the women who have enjoyed the lion's share of episodic TV directing jobs in the past decades since the lawsuit do not seem to be making efforts to help widen the job pool to include more, different women.
 
Some of the women who hold leadership positions in the Guild have demonstrated little support for any change that could be construed as controversial. This has resulted in a failure to get more women through the door to TV directing. If those women are attempting to protect their turf, so to speak, they are hindering the opportunity for our industry to work toward equity among directors, they are perpetuating tokenism, and they are stifling the hopes of the next generation of America's women filmmakers.
 
Almost every woman director who is currently a DGA leader got her start after the lawsuit, and therefore benefitted directly from the hard work and sacrifices made by the Original Six who founded the Women's Steering Committee. Indeed, since all DGA diversity committees and efforts to support ethnic minority hiring emerged from the work of these women, even our new DGA President, Paris Barclay, who is African American, benefitted from their work. The DGA African American Steering Committee was officially only established in 1994, nine years after the lawsuit.

* * *
 
Now, in 2014, as the numbers slip ominously backwards, it is not just women DGA members we must look to for solutions. We must also understand why our male leaders are failing to take on the power establishment that has so impeded the potential of this generation of women filmmakers -- and profoundly threatens the next. If the problem is as ignoble as to be defined as a gender war for resources, then we must bring to bear the laws of our great nation to insist upon equity.
 
A high-level DGA executive recently said that if women directors press for more work, they will be waging war, that they will be threatening to take the food from the plates of the families of male directors. But women directors have families, too, and it is only fair that the playing field for directing jobs be level and free of gender bias.
 
Women directors must have the courage to speak out fearlessly if they feel they have been "shut out." In an industry based on personal relationships, it is very hard for anyone to muster the courage to speak out against discrimination. Fear of blacklisting is always present, but an industry -- a society -- that condones fear is oppressive.

To solve this problem, women directors must openly demand the advancement of women directors through the DGA and studio and network diversity programs. We must help create a paradigm shift in public thinking about the abilities and competence of women directors. We must make the issue of the under-representation of women directors common knowledge. We should seek out investigative journalists to expose conscious and unconscious complicity within the Hollywood power establishment to keep women out.
 
No one wants to bring lawsuits: they are bad for business, they are bad for careers, they are time-consuming and expensive. But sometimes -- like wars -- they are necessary, as was the case back in 1983. Hopefully, we do not need one now, but we will have to see how sincere the commitments, and the intent of those commitments, are as spelled out in the recent Collective Bargaining Agreements. The possibility of future legal action rests in the hands of the DGA and the studios. Let's see if they can find it incumbent upon them to place social justice and equity before fear of change.

Previously: "The New DGA/Studio Agreement: Nothing New for Women"

Maria Giese is a feature-film director, a member of the Directors Guild of America, and an activist for parity for women directors in Hollywood. She writes and lectures about the under-representation of women filmmakers in the United States.

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2 Comments

  • Kelly | January 27, 2014 11:32 AMReply

    In our society today, more than likely woman has taken competition to another level.
    Make it more precise, they made it to the point of leveling with man in capacity.
    And I guess it's safe enough to say that they must recognize woman as a huge contributor in our economy today.

    Kelly Zauber
    Austin home theater

  • Linn D. | January 20, 2014 1:50 PMReply

    Thank you for taking the time to write this educational and informative piece. I recognize the risk you are taking personally, and I hope karma brings you the joy and happiness you deserve for taking this stance. Female filmmakers in the future will be indebted to you - and they probably won't thank you enough. So here's one small thank you in advance...

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