The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will begin interviewing dozens of female directors next week in an effort to see what action, if any, it should take to combat discrimination against female film and TV directors. A letter from the EEOC went out to some 50 women late last week.

It could be the first step toward a class-action lawsuit against the industry.

“I would like the EEOC to take legal action against the studios, the networks and the commercial production companies to make them comply with the law,” said commercial director Lori Precious, one of the women the EEOC has called in to discuss the situation. “I hope they force people to change the way they do business because Hollywood is not exempt from the law.”

“We greatly appreciate your willingness to share your personal stories and the obstacles which you have faced in pursuit of success within your profession,” reads the letter sent out October 1 by Marla Stern-Knowlton, Systemic Supervisor of the Los Angeles district office of the EEOC.

EEOC LogoThe EEOC, Stern-Knowlton noted, is a federal agency charged with enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion and national origin; the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, which prohibits employment discrimination against individuals 40 and older; the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which prohibits wage discrimination based on gender; the American with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits discrimination in employment against a qualified individual with a disability; and the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act of 2008, which prohibits discrimination based on genetics.

In other words, the industry could be a facing massive, government-led class action on any number of fronts affecting the underemployment of female directors — from sexism and ageism to racism and “wageism.” Women currently receive only 16% of the episodic TV directing jobs, and last year directed less than 5% of the major studio releases.

The latest and most serious push for gender equality in Hollywood began when several female directors urged the ACLU to take up their cause. In May, the ACLU filed a complaint with the EEOC, requesting an investigation into “the systemic failure to hire women directors at all levels of the film and television industry.”

“I hope the Obama administration and Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Chuck Grassley, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, will give the EEOC every ounce of support they can muster in this historic effort to create equality for women directors in U.S. media, at last,” said director Marie Giese, who has been pushing the EEOC to investigate Hollywood’s hiring practices for more than two years.

Giese first went to the EEOC in February 2013 but says she was told by the agency it “couldn’t take this on in an industrywide approach. It felt it could only take on individual lawsuits for a woman who would directly sue a studio or production company within a 12-month window with smoking-gun evidence.”

She told the EEOC at that time that “no woman would risk her career by filing a lawsuit because she would be blacklisted.” She then took her complaint to the ACLU. “The ACLU changed the EEOC’s mind,” she said. “We are so grateful to the ACLU and the EEOC. This is an investigation that is long overdue. I hope this will be the spearhead to create equality for every woman in our industry, and for every woman in every industry in America.”

ACLU Women's Rights 2Said Melissa Goodman, director of the ACLU SoCal’s LGBTQ, Gender & Reproductive Justice Project: “Blatant and extreme gender inequality in this large and important industry is shameful and unacceptable. The time has come for new solutions to this serious civil rights problem.”

The letter sent by the EEOC to female directors said: “Your name was provided to our agency by Melissa Goodman with the ACLU. Ms. Goodman has advised the EEOC that you would be willing to speak with us, so that we may learn more about the gender-related issues which you are facing in both the Film and Television Industries. To that end, I would like to begin coordinating dates and times for these interviews, to take place during the month of October at our Los Angeles District Office. Please note that these interviews will be considered confidential. At your earliest opportunity, please contact me and let me know your availability so that we can schedule a date and time for your interview.”

Several directors already have responded, to which the EEOC Stern-Knowlton replied: “Thank you for your prompt response and willingness to speak with the EEOC. I am planning on conducting my first group of interviews next week and will be reaching out to you to schedule dates and times throughout the month, both in-person and by phone.”

The narrowness of the scope of the EEOC’s probe – and the ACLU’s complaint – for now appears to be limited strictly to female directors, but the issues appear to be more systemic. In TV, for instance, directors are usually hired by the shows’ executive producers and showrunners – the vast majority of whom are male writers – and it’s the networks, studios and production companies who hire the showrunners. A recent WGA report found that women held only 15.1% of the executive producer positions last season, a decline of 18.6% from the previous season. “Of the 457 executive producer positions in 2013-14, women occupied 136,” the WGA report found. “As women represent slightly more than half of the U.S. population, the group was underrepresented by a factor of more than 3-to-1 among the writers who ran television shows in 2013-14.”

The current EEOC probe of discriminatory hiring practices in Hollywood is not without precedent. In 1969, the EEOC held several days of hearings in Los Angeles and concluded that women and minorities were being discriminated against in behind-the-scenes jobs. But lacking enforcement powers at that time, it referred the matter to the Justice Department. The DOJ and the industry later agreed to establish “goals and timetables” to increase minority representation in many jobs covered by the IATSE, but that produced very few improvements. Female directors weren’t even included.

The DGA filed a class-action discrimination suit against Warner Bros and Columbia in 1983 on behalf of female and minority directors. A federal judge dismissed the DGA as a class representative in the suit, however, after finding that a potential conflict could arise if plaintiffs chose “to prosecute claims against the DGA.” The number of female directors increased after the lawsuit was filed but then declined.

The DGA releases mountains of data about TV directors every year but does not release data about directors of films and commercials or on assistant directors or unit production managers. Precious said that just last week she asked the DGA to release its numbers on female commercial directors, which she believes are “dismal.”