The ACLU of Southern California and the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project in New York recently sent letters to state and federal civil rights agencies requesting an investigation into the hiring practices of Hollywood's film and television industries. The conclusion of their investigation? That not only do sexist hiring practices result in the underrepresention of women who direct in Hollywood but many talented and qualified directors who are women are locked out completely.
"Women directors have been clamoring for a fair shot for a long time," ACLU senior staff attorney Ariela Migdal told International Business Times. "But no one has really listened to them. We’re hoping that by combining the statistics that are out there with their stories and calling it a civil rights issue, along with getting the agencies involved -- that will be the impetus for real change," she said about the letters, which were sent Tuesday.
Migdal added, "Most women we spoke to just want to make sure we help change the way the hiring happens so that they’ll have equal opportunity and be on equal footing for these jobs in the future."
In the past 12 years, women have directed only 4 percent of top-grossing films. Of the 100 top-grossing films of 2013 and 2014, a University of Southern California study found that around 2 percent were directed by women. And of 220 television shows with 3,500 episodes broadcast in 2013 and 2014, only 14 percent were directed by women, reports the New York Times.
Jill Soloway, who won a Golden Globe for her Amazon show "Transparent," welcomed the inquiry into the uneven Hollywood playing field on which women directors must compete -- if for no other reason than to spotlight its shameful sexism.
“At least you should be aware that you should be ashamed of yourself if your show is 90 percent written by male writers,” Soloway told the New York Times. “Watching something written and directed by women, to me that’s the future. It’s not just, ‘Hey, give women more jobs.’ ”
For women who are players of any kind in Hollywood -- directors or assistant directors or producers -- having "arrived" often means putting up with "Mad Men," pre-feminist movement levels of sexual and gender harassment, testimony of which can be read on the Tumblr blog Sh--PeopleSayToWomenDirectors, which went viral overnight.
The ACLU's move was instigated based on the accounts of 50 women directors and the letters sent to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. Both state and federal laws give civil rights agencies the authority to conduct investigations into allegedly discriminatory practices.
Migdal spoke to IBTimes about the letters, Hollywood, and why "the Industry" is ripe for change.
International Business Times: Have women filed lawsuits against anyone in Hollywood for discriminatory, sexist hiring practices?
Ariela Migdal: There’s one case we cite in our letter to California Employment Agency called Alt, which is about writers and age discrimination. But in terms of women coming out, I’m not aware. The Director’s Guild itself, back in the era of the EEOC, were looking into it. They tried to bring an action, but it was dismissed, with the court saying they were part of the problem so they couldn’t really bring action. But since that flurry of action, it’s been pretty dormant in the decades since.
IBTimes: Why now?
Migdal: We think it’s ripe at this point, since the numbers are so horrible and more and more women are outraged about it. It’s ripe for these civil rights agencies to come back and investigate it.
IBTimes: What does the term "inexorable zero" mean?
Migdal: In civil rights law, we have this case called the Teamsters Case about the inexorable zero. That was a race case. If you have zero people of color working, it might be an indication that you’ve signaled that they need not apply.
What was shocking to me about Hollywood was when I went in and looked at the numbers, particularly on television. You look at shows that have a 26 episodes a season, and they’ve been on for six or seven seasons, and you look at some of the zeros: zero women directing any episodes. And sometimes whole production companies and even networks that have so few or, in some cases, zero women over whatever period of time. That’s astounding in 2015. You don’t get zeros anymore in almost any industry.
IBTimes: Where has the oversight to prevent this been?
Migdal: If you think about it, every employer is covered by civil rights laws. No employer is allowed to discriminate, assuming they have 15 employees and are covered by federal law. But the federal civil rights agencies can’t be everywhere. So what we’ve tried to do is pacakage a lot of evidence and say, "Here’s something worth focusing on because there’s some terrible discrimination going on here. And it’s a very imporantant industry."
We’re doing this with the ACLU of Southern California. In LA, this [the television and movie industry] is so dominant it’s called the Industry. You can’t have your main industry in a town that shuts women out of some of the key jobs.
IBTimes: Why do you think now is the time for combatting this?
Migdal: For us, it’s now because we’ve heard from 50 women directors. That’s a lot, and it’s matching the stats. Taking a step back, why now are 50 women directors calling ACLU and telling stories of discrimination? There are many reasons. The Sony leak. Patricia Arquette speaking out about pay discrimination at the Oscars. We had Ava Duvernay and a discussion about her ability to make film and women being allowed, women of color being allowed. And if you look at our numbers, we break down numbers of women of color if you want to see some stark numbers there as well.
There’s a moment now you see more women speaking out, and A-list actresses being willing to speak out. I think it makes a difference, and I think it makes women directors realize that what happened to them when they were told, "We had a woman last year, we don’t need a woman this year," that that’s a bigger problem, not just some jerk who says something to them.
Especially when you look at television, you have so many episodes to look at, and you can really see the exclusion.
IBTimes: So you would say that this ACLU action was really instigated by an increasing number of female directors getting in touch with you.
Migdal: That was a huge part of it. We put up a story collection mechanism where people could fill it out and we heard a lot from women.
IBTimes: What would you say is the likely/ideal timeframe for response to the ACLU's letters?
Migdal: When an individual person files a charge of discrimination, "I was fired because my boss hates women” or whatever, they’re supposed to respond in 180 days. Here, we’re asking them to initiate their own charges. They’re going to want to do their own homework, and so we would hope they would soon take action, but that would mean interviewing people. They have their own processes, so it’s not like tomorrow they’re going to have a hearing.
IBTimes: Will they make a public response? This issue has been so public.
Migdal: We’ve had great experiences working with civil rights agencies. I do a lot of work on pregnant workers, for example. The EEOC issued guidance, the Office of Federal Contractors is issuing new rules. They brought enforcement action, and they made it part of their strategic enforcement priorities. They have many tools at their disposal. They also have many demands on their attention. We’re hopeful they’ll take a good look at this.
IBTimes: Could we blame the agencies that are supposed to be overseeing this for letting it go on like this for decades?
Migdal: There’s plenty of blame to go around for these problems, but I do think there are things the agencies can do. By investigating, you really find out where the bottlenecks are. Is it that women are being allowed to direct one episode and then never brought back for more because they’re capping women, for example? These are things they [the agencies] can find out when they look into it.
IBTimes: There are some powerful women in positions of power in Hollywood. Is that helping other women at all?
Migdal: The reason we’re calling this systematic bias is there’s never just one decision-maker. Yes, there are some well-known women showrunners, on television now. If you go and look if they’ve hired women directors, it doesn’t necessarily go by who are men/who are women in the showrunner position. Manohla Darghis of the New York Times did a series on this, quoting big studio heads who were women.
They said, yeah, it’s a problem, when I get a list of names, it doesn’t have women on it. Amy Pascale was interviewed. There are lots of layers you have to go through, and people can veto your hires for director. That’s another reason we didn’t go the route of a lawsuit against one particular person, showrunner or executive. It’s a bigger problem.
IBTimes: What are some of the worst "bottlenecks" that keep women from being in director positions in Hollywood?
Migdal: The talent agencies are a big problem. If you look at our Office of Federal Contract Compliance Program, the whole idea of employment agencies only referring men or white men, that’s a common problem. “It’s not my fault, the agency only sent me men!" they'll say. And then the agency says, "The studio told me don’t send women because the hiring producer doesn’t like women!" We would like that to be taken a look at. The issue of the short list is a big problem.
They’ve had efforts to get women hired in the past, like shadowing programs. They’re ineffective, and don’t lead to jobs. That could be a program that, if fixed, could actually lead to jobs for women.
Antoher big bottleneck: Women will do well in their first independent film. And for men, that will be a stepping stone for big, action-packed studio film. For women, that doesn’t happen. Sundance in their recent report isolated that moment right after the Sundance award, and the guy in your class is being offered opportunities you’re not getting. That’s something to hone in on and ask -- what’s going on there?
IBTimes: What would be the ideal outcome of these letters the ACLU sent to state and federal agencies regarding Hollywood's discriminatory hiring practices.
Migdal: The outcome: An investigation and charges that will result in agreements that will include concrete steps for fixing this. That would be the hope. I would be most interested in forward-looking steps, to change how the hiring is done. Again, this isn’t a lawsuit on behalf of a particular person who says, "I didn’t get this specific episode of this show."
Most women we spoke to just want to make sure we help change the way the hiring happens so that they’ll have equal opportunity and be on equal footing for these jobs in the future.
IBTimes: What kind of sanctions or punishments do you think might happen if the hiring continues to be discriminatory?
Migdal: If you have an agreement like that, then it’d have to be enforced by the agencies, but we’re so many steps back from that. No one has even tried to look at this as a civil rights issue: They haven’t investigated it, then they haven’t found discrimination. When you find that you can create an agreement, and then if the agreement is violated ... but we’re far from that. That [punishment] could work. It does work in other industries.
IBTimes: Why has Hollywood been so intractable?
Migdal: You have the money concentrated in the hands of not that many large companies. You’re looking at it, and there are a few entities, that if they changed the way they did it, it would trickle down. That’s why this is doable. But it hasn’t changed so far because they’re all in competition to do it the way they’ve always done it.
They [Hollywood] don’t want to entrust their summer tentpole blockbuster action movie to someone who doesn’t look like someone they’ve before entrusted it to.