Below is the Executive Summary for the Cut Out Of The Picture report, published in May 2016. For more detail on any aspect mentioned, please down the full report.
The issue of female underrepresentation in the film industry has been discussed with growing regularity over the last decade. Major industry events have come under fire and major industry figures have voiced their concerns. This increasing pressure has begun to focus attention on the discrimination women face in film.
However, there has been a dearth of comprehensive data and analysis to demonstrate the actual nature and extent of the problems facing women in the film industry. This report endeavours to provide this information, along with a more nuanced set of explanations of its causes.
Our findings show the scale and breadth of these issues are far greater than has often been acknowledged, particularly with respect to female directors. Its causes are also more complex and deep-seated than is usually suggested.
We hope that this clearer picture of the issues and their antecedents will aid the efforts to redress this imbalance, and have offered a number of solutions based upon them to this end.
Women are poorly represented within directors of UK films
We studied a total 2,591 films released between 2005 and 2014, inclusive. In that ten-year period, just 13.6% of working film directors were women.
Perhaps more problematically, there has not been any meaningful improvement in the representation of female directors in our studied period. In 2005, 11.3% of UK films had a female director but by 2014 this had only increased to 11.9%.
Female directors are also disadvantaged in their career progression and the opportunities they receive even after directing their first film. On average, female directors will direct fewer films in their career and are less likely to receive a second, third or fourth directing gig. Furthermore, as budgets rise, fewer female directors are hired and those that are hired are disproportionately limited to certain genres.
Female representation is also poor in many other parts of the UK film industry
Data on the crews of the films we studied revealed that the disparity between men and women, although most pronounced for directors, is evident throughout the industry. We identified nine key creative roles on film productions. Of these only two had greater than 50% female representation with the rest ranging between 6% and 31%. Similarly, only casting, make-up, and costume departments have a majority of female crew, meaning of the seventeen crew credits we studied, fourteen had fewer women than men.
However, the scale of the disparity between men and women in crews was not as stark as that between key creatives, which in turn was not as severe as that between male and female directors. The general trend is for the percentage of women in a given role to broadly be dependent on the seniority of that role. In other words, the more senior a role, the less chance it is held by a woman, and, by extension, the less chance a woman has of being hired for it.
Female representation in key creative roles and among film crews, like the percentage of female directors, has also stagnated across the last decade. Across the whole of the industry there is no meaningful trend towards greater representation of women or any real improvement in their career prospects.
Over a fifth of UK films receive some form of public funding (development and/or production), and we found that those films had a higher representation of women amongst directors. However, the overall average hides a clear decline in the support of female directors. In 2007, 32.9% of films with UK-based public funding had a woman director, but by 2014 that had dropped to just 17.0%.
We also discovered that the majority of UK film public bodies do not adequately track the gender of applicants and awardees.
The route to becoming a film director in the UK
Based on responses to our survey of working directors we outlined the various routes directors take in their career. This illustrated the increasing difficulty women have in progressing through the industry and more clearly located where inequality emerges. UK film students, like the UK population as a whole, are broadly 50% male and 50% female. Similarly, entrants to the film industry are 49% female.
Yet as they begin to progress through their careers and gain the credibility required to launch a directing career the disparity begins to emerge. As we’ve seen, women are already underrepresented in the majority of film crew departments and the difference between male and female representation increases as we progress to key creative roles. Female directors face similar issues in other important stages of their career development: just 27.2% of British short film directors and 14% of drama television directors are female. And, as noted, once they become directors they struggle to progress to larger budgets (16.1% female directors on low-budget films compared to 3.3% on high-budget films1) and to make additional films (12.5% of directors who have made two films are female compared to just 4.0% on directors who have made four or more).
Collectively, these findings paint the picture of an industry where female directors are limited in their ability to become directors and their career progression once they do. They are limited in the number of films they can direct as well as the budget and genre of the films they do. They are less likely to be hired at all stages of their careers and find it proportionately more difficult to be hired to senior roles and gain the credibility and experience needed to launch a successful directing career. And there is no meaningful sign of improvement without concerted action to resolve these issues.
Searching for the cause(s) of gender inequality among UK film directors
We found no evidence that fewer women wish to become directors than men. Given the lack of any disparity during film education or at the point of entering the career, the scale of the disparity at later stages in directors’ career progressions and its consistency through careers and across the industry, this explanation simply seems highly unlikely to be even close to a full explanation of the issue.
If the personal choices of women in the film industry is inadequate as an explanation of the disparity between male and female directors then, given individual decisions and contacts are the gate-keepers to progression and success within the industry, whatever the root causes of the inequality are, the point at which they are realised must involve some action of the individuals with power in the industry. In other words, the disparity must be a result of the preferences of those making hiring decisions rather than those applying for those positions.
We found evidence to support this hypothesis in the difference in representation of female employees under female directors and heads of department and their male counterparts. Female key creatives have a notably higher percentage of women in their departments and female directors hire a greater percentage of female key creatives. Hence, the differing preferences of male and female employers is clearly resulting in a difference in their hiring practices.
However, we found no evidence of any organised, conscious or deliberate efforts to exclude women from the industry or certain positions within it. Therefore, it is our belief that the gender imbalance is primarily due to an unconscious bias.
By studying three aspects of UK films, namely audience ratings (popularity), critics rating (quality), and box office (profitability) we were able to show that the evidence available is not adequate to justify any such preference. Meaning that there is no evidence to support the notion that the bias against female applicants is in any way justified.
Hence, the best initial explanation of our findings is that they are the result of a widespread, unjustified, and unconscious bias within the industry. However, this is far from a full explanation. It is important to note we have not seen evidence to support the suggestion that those making hiring decisions genuinely hold such biases in a wider context, and we do not believe this to be the case.
The lack of any trend towards an improvement in female representation, despite the frequent churn of individuals within the film industry, suggests that there are systemic issues that are sustaining and perhaps creating these biases. In simple terms, the individual instances of bias are not the problem themselves but rather a symptom of it. We identified four principal systemic issues we believe produce, allow, and protect the disparity between men and women in the film industry:
- First, there is no effective regulatory system to police or enforce gender equality. Without adequate protection and in an industry where hiring is conducted primarily privately and reputation is of great importance (discouraging any complaints by a discriminated upon party) unfair hiring practices go unreported and ignored. In addition, just 7% of UK films make a profit, thereby effectively removing the power of the market to deselect unsuccessful projects and methods. Without competition driving change and with no external pressure to force change there is no
reason to deselect damaging ideas, so no change occurs.
- Second, the pervasive nature of uncertainty, which creates a climate of insecurity, leads to illogical and ritualistic behaviours, which results in the industry operating based on preconceived notions of the archetypal director, rather than on their individual abilities and talents.
- Third, the permanent short-termism in the film industry discourages long-term thinking and Prevents positive HR practices, best exemplified by the un-family-friendly nature of the industry. The vast majority of producers work film to film and build the team and structure for each project anew and at considerable pace. This means hiring must often, by necessity, rely on traditional methods and preconceived notions, as there simply isn’t time to conduct a more extensive hiring process. In addition, the sporadic employment, long hours, and unpredictable and constantly changing nature of the work make it nearly impossible to effectively progress in the industry whilst also being the primary care-giver in a family, a role which is disproportionately held by women.
- Finally, inequality in the film industry is symbiotic – the various instances of inequality across various areas of the industry reinforce and facilitate each other – creating a vicious cycle. First, male employers hire a greater percentage of men, resulting in a greater percentage of men in positions to hire others. And second, a lack of female directors leads to a lack of role models for those starting out and greater pessimism about their prospects, which may discourage many candidates. And third, low female representation leads to low regard for female directors which in turn leads to low female representation.
Collectively, we believe the evidence suggests that these four systemic issues protect and sustain the outdated, unconscious bias of the individuals within the industry, and these, in turn, result in fewer women being hired and fewer films being directed by women.
Providing solutions to remedy the gender inequity among film directors of UK films
However, we suggest the current vicious circle which perpetuates the under-employment of female directors can be used as the engine of change, becoming a virtuous circle, as shown below.
To this end, we have outlined three solutions to these systemic issues, which we believe would greatly improve the representation of female directors and women in the industry more generally.
- First, we propose a target of 50/50 gender parity within public funding by 2020. Only 21.7% of the projects we studied that were funded by UK based funding bodies were helmed by a female director. A target that half of films backed by UK-based public bodies be directed by women by 2020 offers one of the most direct opportunities to redress the imbalance between male and female directors on publicly backed films. In addition, we suggest that all bodies which disperse public money within the UK to films or filmmakers are required to provide full details of the gender of applicants, grantees, and key creatives on each production. The current lack of any widespread, comprehensive data has limited awareness of the issue and so slowed efforts to change it.
- Second, we propose amending the Film Tax Relief to require all UK films to account for diversity. The Film Tax Relief (FTR) is the largest single element of government support for the UK film industry. It touches all films, no matter their origin, scale, genre, creative contents, or market potential and therefore it is one of the most powerful mechanisms with which to effect industry-wide change. We propose an additional ‘diversity’ dimension to the requirements all films must fulfil in order to be eligible for Film Tax Relief, within which gender would be specified group.
- Finally, we propose an industry-wide campaign to rebalance gender inequality within UK film, whereby different parts of the film industry take responsibility for the respective roles they have to play in tackling gender inequality and enabling more women to become directors and direct films. Public bodies and agencies should continue to lead a coordinated campaign raising awareness and promoting action and intervention, including: funding, career support, unconscious bias training and challenging industry myths. This report includes suggestions and methods for running this campaign.
In combination, we believe these solutions would go much of the way towards fixing the gender disparity in the film industry. Not only by directly improving the opportunities for female directors and the number of female-directed films, but also by removing the systemic issues which propagate inequality in the industry.
Why action is needed
What is clear is that without serious, concerted effort to alter the hiring practices in the industry, this is not an issue that will resolve itself. However, the reasons to implement such change are numerous and extend far beyond simply the benefit to women within film itself.
By expanding and diversifying the pool of working directors we increase the range and variety of the films we make and the stories we tell. By shutting out entire segments of society we exclude unique voices and limit the scope of our culture as a whole. Equally, audiences are limited in the films they can see. A male-dominated Film industry leads to male-focused films, leaving women not only underrepresented amongst directors but underrepresented in the art and stories themselves.
The film industry benefits hugely by improving the meritocracy of its hiring decisions. By hiring more women in prominent positions we improve the opportunities for other talented women within the industry and create role models to inspire the next generation, further increasing the talent to choose from. Finally, and most simply, it matters because it is unfair and unjust for any individual’s opportunities to be limited simply because of their gender and because this sort of discrimination is outdated, illegal and immoral.
Film occupies a unique position, sitting at the crossroads between being product and art. It has great influence over what we as a society believe and how we feel about it. It not only responds to but shapes public opinion, and so it has a greater obligation to represent our society as a whole and to project informed, developed beliefs than perhaps any other industry. The disparity between male and female directors and the inequality in the industry more generally means we are failing in this obligation. But it is well within the industry’s power to change this.