A young woman saves a plummeting plane, takes down an axe-wielding villain, and soars at supersonic speeds over the Manhattan skyline.
A packed audience at the Los Angeles Arclight Theater watched these scenes during a recent advanced screening of “Supergirl,” a series that premiered on October 26 about Superman’s female cousin. But to some critics, this show that is premised on one woman’s fictional power ironically fails to embrace female empowerment in a more important sense: few women are at the helm of this show’s production team.
“People are wondering, why weren’t they hiring women to tell stories about other women?,” said Melanie Wagor, a director who attended the show’s advanced screening. “When someone in the audience asked that question, they didn’t answer it,” she said of the post-screening question-and-answer session with the show’s producers.
But the days of dodging this question may be coming to an end. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reportedly has started to probe allegations of discrimination against women directors in Hollywood, and the agency recently sent interview requests to about 50 female television and film directors.
These interviews come on the heels of a letter that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent to the EEOC in May of 2015, the culmination of years of discussions between the ACLU and directors. Citing statistics and anecdotes drawn from interviews with 50 female directors, the ACLU asserted in its letter that film and television industry leaders employ practices that systematically discriminate against women, resulting in significant disparities between the number of male and female directors. The ACLU’s letter called upon the EEOC to bring enforcement actions against the responsible parties.
“We have received the ACLU’s letter which contained information documenting underrepresentation of women directors in the film and television industry and have had further discussions with the ACLU about their data and conclusions,” EEOC Spokesperson Christine Park-Gonzalez wrote in an email.
“We have been meeting with the government agencies we wrote to back in May and have been very encouraged by those conversations,” Goodman said in an email.
But whether or not the EEOC chooses to bring any enforcement actions may hinge on the results of its own interviews with female directors. If these interviews suggest that certain film or television employers may have violated Title VII—a federal law prohibiting workplace discrimination on the basis of sex, among other protected traits—the EEOC could file a Charge of Discrimination. The agency would then conduct an investigation, which typically takes around six months, in order to determine whether any employers have in fact violated federal law. If the agency concludes that there have been Title VII violations, it would likely first try to reach a voluntary settlement with the identified employers, according to EEOC policy. If it cannot do so, it may decide to bring a civil action against the employers.
Park-Gonzalez declined to comment on whether the agency is pursuing an enforcement action against any parties, citing federal law that prohibits the EEOC from confirming or denying the existence of a charge.
For some female directors like Wagor, the prospect of EEOC involvement in this issue appears to come as welcome news, due to what they say is a lack of accountability in Hollywood. Title VII, as well as California anti-discrimination laws like the Fair Employment and Housing Act and the Unruh Civil Rights Act, prohibits sex-based discrimination. But advocates say that there are no regulatory bodies to ensure that Hollywood studios and others involved in hiring comply with these laws.
Although the Directors Guild of America (DGA)—an entertainment guild representing film and television directors—has sought to improve female director employment numbers, activists say that it has not prioritized the promotion of government anti-discrimination efforts or even enforcement of its own anti-discrimination policies against television and film production companies. For example, the DGA allegedly continues to make use of “short lists”—lists of directors that the DGA uses to recommend directors for particular projects—which include very few women, thereby perpetuating the absence of female directors in the film and television industries.
And some advocates argue that if history is any indication, even federal agency involvement will not effectuate lasting change. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s, the EEOC, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs found evidence of discrimination against women and racial minorities in the film industry groups. As a result, several major studios and film institutions entered into settlement agreements with these federal agencies. But according to critics, most of these agreements failed to bring about long-term improvements because they focused exclusively on improving racial minority employment numbers and did not impose enforcement requirements or penalties for noncompliance.
“Historically, when a light was shined on the issue, the number of female directors went up, but it didn’t stay up,” explained Lori Precious, a director and one of the recipients of the EEOC’s letters requesting interviews with female directors. “I don’t believe there will be lasting change.”
Even if the EEOC ultimately were to bring an enforcement action, doing so may present challenges. For instance, one type of claim that the EEOC might choose to litigate is a disparate impact claim under Title VII, which would involve proving that the employers’ policies and procedures adversely affect women. The EEOC might point to “word-of-mouth” recruiting, which allegedly disproportionately hurts female directors. But the EEOC is required to demonstrate a causal connection between word-of-mouth recruiting and the disparate impact on women—a burden that is not always easily satisfied.
Some film and television industry leaders say that they want to hire more women directors. But major studios are devoting most of their resources to big-budget movies with lots of visual effects, which are typically directed by men.
“The challenge on studio films is to find someone who has directed a movie of a similar size, scope[,] and scale before,” Peter Cramer, co-president of production at Universal Pictures, reportedly explained. As a result, this shift towards large-scale productions has perpetuated the exclusion of female directors in Hollywood.
But allowing the film and television industries to continue to police themselves will only make matters worse, anti-discrimination advocates say.
“[S]ome type of intervention by an external organization such as the EEOC will be required to push the industry into substantial and lasting change,” Dr. Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, said in an email.
The Directors Guild of America did not respond to a request for comment.