New Study Finds Old Stereotypes Still Keeping Female Directors Down

Men outnumbered women 23-to-1 as directors of the 1,300 top-grossing films since 2002, according to a new study conducted by Women In Film and the Sundance Institute, which found gender stereotyping to be one of the main reasons for the disparity.

“Having completed this three-year study, we now know that female filmmakers face deep-rooted presumptions from the film industry about their creative qualifications, sensibilities, tendencies and ambitions,” said Cathy Schulman, President of Women In Film Los Angeles. “Now we need to move a heavy boat through deep waters, and WIF is committed to year-round action until sustainable gender parity is achieved.”

The study found that the gender gap widens with each step that women directors take up the distribution ladder – widening from 4-to-1 for U.S. films shown in dramatic competition at Sundance to 6-to-1 for films distributed theatrically on more than 250 screens to 23-to-1 for the top-grossing films. The study was conducted by Dr. Stacy L. Smith at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

As part of the study, interviews were conducted with 59 buyers and sellers of movies and 41 women directors to gauge the impediments the latter group faces in the job market. Many of those interviewed (44%) said that the marketplace has a built-in gender bias – that female directors are perceived to make films for a less significant portion of the marketplace, while films directed by males are perceived to reach a wider and more lucrative segment of the market. “One explanation for this difference,” the study found, “is the tendency to ‘think director, think male,’ or to describe the job of a director or profitable film content in masculine terms.”

Another 42% of those interviewed said that industry decision-makers believe that there’s a scarcity of female directors and a small pool to choose from for their top-grossing films, while 25% said that there is a perceived lack of interest on the part of women to direct big-budget movies. “Participants mentioned or questioned the degree of interest women have in the directing position generally and genre-based jobs, including action and tentpole films,” the study found. “Sellers were more likely to report this impediment than buyers were. However, when asked directly about their ambitions, nearly half of female directors (43.9%) interviewed articulated an interest in larger-budget, action or blockbuster films.”

Another 22% said that there is a skewed representation of women in the film industry, including the predominance of men in gate-keeping positions and an old-boys-club culture. Another 14% mentioned or questioned whether agents and managers are putting women up for jobs, while 12% mentioned or speculated about beliefs that women “can’t handle” certain types of films or aspects of production, such as commanding a large crew. When asked if their authority had been doubted, 70% of female directors interviewed answered that they had been challenged by a work colleague.

“It is clear that the film industry must grapple with not only the paucity of female directors working at its highest ranks but also the image industry leaders hold regarding female directors,” the study concluded. “To journey from gender inequality to parity, decision-makers and advocates must work to alter their perceptions about what women can and want to do in their careers. This requires moving away from narrow and limiting stereotypes to conceptions of women that are as open and unbounded as those surrounding men.”

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