No fun for you darling – the ugly truth in Australian film production

The dominance of men in the Australian feature industry is the Beast That Will Not Die. Not yet, anyway.

The gender disparity figures in the Australian film industry are stark and have been highlighted once again in the latest issue of Lumina, the house journal of AFTRS, the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. It is edited by industry publicist and crusader Tracey Mair, and the outgoing CEO of the school, Sandra Levy.

As Levy points out in the preface, in 2015, only 16% of feature films were directed by women, only 20% are written by women, and only 29% of feature films are produced by women. ‘This is in spite of the fact  that women make up about half of the graduates from film schools and about half of the workers in the screen industry’.

Monica Davidson based her keynote article on her thesis for the AFTRS Masters in Screen Business program. She opened by saying that ‘Male directors are responsible for more than 85% of the feature films made since the 1970’s. This figure has not changed significantly for 25 years, nor has this disproportionate power been strenuously questioned.’

The fact that it should be is amply demonstrated by the role call of writers for the whole book, which include Deanne Weir, Rachel Ward, Laura Jones, Deb Cox, Gillian Armstrong, Amanda Higgs, Catriona McKenzie, Katherine Thompson and Claudia Karvan, either in their own words or by interview. The 320 pages add up to a compendium of knowledge about creative process and industrial realities seen through strong value systems.

The industry knows that the difference between the Australian affection for film and television is remarkable. We demonstrate with our remotes that we love our local drama, and with our absence that we don’t want to see local films in the cinema. Television producers understand very well that the female audience is vital and any production except sport must actively engage women.

Associate Professor Lisa French contributes her own research and adds an extra twist to the story by pointing out that ‘women have the strongest participation in television, getting up to 44%’. According to Screen Australian figures for the last six years of feature production, ‘women directors have made films with central women protagonists 74% of the time and that men have only featured a woman character or subject 24% of the time… stories from female points of view are more likely to be made by women directors.’

As all the arguments point out, women are half the population. The parts of the sector that cater best to women have the highest rate of female participation in roles deploying creative power. So why are the figures still so awful?

Davidson quotes research from the Committee for Economic Development in Australia which discovers the barriers to women’s equality in the workplace, ranked in order. They make absolute sense in the screen sector:

1. Workplace culture

2. Lack of female leaders

3. Gender stereotypes

4. Lack of flexible work practices

5. Affordability and accessibility of childcare.

Davidson is a producer and therefore an employer. She has three children, and has provided childcare on her productions. In an interview she said, ‘If we have programs in place that allow easier access to women, particularly in the middle of their careers we are going to be talking about more flexible, more family friendly, more diverse ways of people actually doing the work. And that suits men as well.’

‘Women are dropping out to have babies and not coming back’, she said. ‘It’s the assumption that after that point we shouldn’t be hired, because we’re not going to be able to stay until midnight and we are so raggedy we are not going to be able to lead.’

‘It’s all subconscious underlying bias – I think that’s actually the problem.’

That notion of underlying bias is crucial because it is so denied. Again and again, in conversations around the industry, male producers will claim they like working with women, they build environments that nurture creativity, they try as much as possible to focus on the vital female audience. They have daughters of their own, sometimes even working in the screen sector.

In her article, Davidson wrote, ‘Innumerable studies have shown that both men and women demonstrate unconscious bias when asked to define the achievement-oriented or “agentic” traits of someone with the “merit” to move up the ladder. These traits are usually listed as aggressive, forceful, independent and decisive. In these studies, such agentic traits are also assumed to be male characteristics. Women’s characteristics are defined as more “communal” traits; kind, helpful, sympathetic and empathetic, but not necessarily the traits of a leader.’

In discussion, she said, ‘That is brutally taken advantage of in a competitive environment with men.’ But she also admitted it is, ‘the part I found most horrific, because I’d been the victim of it – but also because I’d been the perpetrator of it.

‘Because both men and women discriminate against women. Unconsciously or accidentally, because of the way we’ve been raised, and socialised and the way we talk to each other. It starts in childhood and it continues on from there and its almost like once you see it, you can’t unsee it – and I suppose that’s why it hit me the hardest. Because I realised that not only have I been holding myself back, I have unconsciously been biased towards women who’ve been striving for leadership in the same way.’

It is pretty plain across the sector that women cluster in the production side, as producers, line producers, production managers and post production supervisors. They are asked to be the handmaidens, the patient supporters exercising all those communal traits. This vision is also a ludicrous cliche, but it reflects the way women flow around the centres of power, towards the opportunities they are offered.

On the phone, Davidson was scathing about the notion that women are failing to put themselves forward to take power in the sector. ‘People always say, “we’ve got a male dominated industry because there’s not enough women coming through the pipeline.” But intelligent, professional, ambitious woman are going to look around at the leadership positions and say, “well, okay, 85% of those creative leadership positions are held by men. how badly do I want to keep beating my head up against that locked door?”

‘It’s a problem that can be solved but its not going to be solved by itself. We can’t expect all these women with bloodied foreheads to keep trying to solve the problem. Somebody on the other side of that door is going to have to open it at some point.​’

‘I think the thing we consistently don’t get is that its not a women’s problem. This is not an issue that women should be expected to solve and I really do think that right this second it is being portrayed as a women’s issue.’

Internationally, Davidson cites figures which are even more chilling. 6% of the top 250 films in the US for 2013 were directed by women. That figure in the UK between 2009 and 2013 was all of 9%. The UK version of Australia’s Women in Film  and Television has an excellent database of reports which are at least instructive. But at least Hollywood studios and the British bureaucracy are beginning to redress the balance. That includes the technical areas.

A practical example is provided by Directors UK, the relevant guild. Its Who’s Calling The Shots report offers eight key recommendations to ensure that a minimum of 30% of television output should be directed by women by 2017. They include networking, mentorships, more long term contracts and monitoring. ​Meanwhile PACT, the UK association for independent creative content producers, ​is busily building diversity programs and running a pledge system. That program covers the other inequity we don’t want to face – cultures beyond the Anglo-celtic ascendancy.

It is fair to say that the industry in Australia is in a state of demographic flux. Generational change is close to complete, sources of government finance are contracting, the government broadcasters are being cut, and the barrier between film and television has broken down.

In all this, the sheer effectiveness of many Australian directors, writers and producers who are women is becoming more and more impressive. It is a wild card played day by day across our industry.

As Davidson said, ‘Australian women haven’t been expected to be ladylike which has given us a great deal of freedom. Ladylike is boring and if there’s any expectation of being ladylike then at least Australian women are, from a broad society point of view, allowed to be loud, robust, energetic, powerful people. We don’t have to sit around and drink tea and wait for someone to ask us to dance. That’s a good start.

‘If fifty percent of Australian features were written, directed and produced by women, can you imagine what that landscape would look like? I think there are some dinosaurs in the works who would probably be very, very frightened of what that world would look like. I can’t wait to see it. I want to be in that world. I want to do some dinosaur frightening.’

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