35 Years Later: Pioneering Women Directors Lament Dearth of Females Behind the Camera

Tonya Wise/DGA
From left: Mimi Leder, Patty Jenkins, Betty Thomas and Martha Coolidge

The DGA’s Women’s Steering Committee aims to expose gender inequality at 35th anniversary event

Women today make up more than half of the U.S. population but direct only 14 percent of episodic TV productions and a mere 9 percent of movies (made under a DGA contract).

On Saturday night, a group of pioneering women directors spoke out before a full house in the 600-seat DGA theater about taking a hammer to Hollywood’s glass ceiling. The answer, they said, is for female directors to continue to break barriers and bust stereotypes to achieve equality in Hollywood.

During its 35th anniversary celebration at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles, the Women’s Steering Committee put out a renewed call to action to develop strategies that would propel women directors to greater access and visibility in the industry.

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The WSC honored its founding members: Lynne Littman (Number Our Days), Susan Bay (The Big Mouth), Nell Cox (M*A*S*H), Victoria Hochberg (Touched By an Angel), Joelle Dobrow (Noticiero Estudiantil) and Dolores Ferraro (The Ellen Burstyn Show). 

Last week, the DGA released its diversity report for the 2013-14 season. The reports show that out of the total 776 directors who directed episodic television made under a DGA agreement, only 17 percent were female.

Since its inception in 1979, the DGA’s Women’s Steering Committee has exposed the limited opportunities offered to female filmmakers. They presented the statistics of their research the following year to the DGA's national board. Michael Franklin, then DGA National Executive Secretary, launched a concerted effort under the direction of the national board to get studios and TV production companies to consider women of the DGA for greater employment opportunities.

In 1983, the DGA filed a class-action lawsuit against Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures on behalf of underemployed women directors. Although the lawsuit was dropped on a technicality, the WSC’s efforts have changed the landscape of the film industry for women.

In 1980, the WSC found that women directors accounted for only 0.05 percent of total days worked by DGA members between 1949 and 1979. By 1995, women directors accounted for 16 percent. 

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Today, the numbers reflect an unfavorable reversal in a time of supposed progress and change. 

“Here we are, inside our own privileged bubble, award-winning members of this community, victims of a very different sort of brutality,” said Littman. “We women have literally been disappeared from the profession because of our gender.”

“Racism, sexism, and ageism remain the three big prickling diseases of this profession,” added Littman. “These days, almost no one I love is working.”

“After 50, even male directors are treated like women,” Littman joked to a receptive crowd.

The WSC also paid tribute to pioneering women directors Patty Jenkins (HBO’s Entourage), Mimi Leder (HBO’s Shameless) and Betty Thomas (Howard Stern’s Private Parts).

Despite awards, all three women admitted to difficulties finding work in the industry.

Jenkins has written and directed feature films, commercials and television programs, including Fox’s cult hit Arrested Development. Her film Monster won Best First Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards in 2004.

One of television’s most accomplished producers-directors, Leder directed DreamWorks’ first theatrical release, The Peacemaker, followed by Deep Impact, Pay it Forward and The Code.

In a conversation moderated by film director and former DGA President Martha Coolidge, Leder spoke about an eight-year hiatus she took after one of her movies flopped. “If you’re a woman,” said Leder, “and your movie flops, you go to ‘jail.’”

Actor-director Thomas directed The Brady Bunch Movie, Private Parts and Dr. Dolittle, among others. She is also first vp of the DGA and co-chair of the Diversity Task Force. “When I am not working, I find myself myself deeply involved with the DGA."

It remains an obstacle to spell out a formula that will ultimately end discrimination toward women in the entertainment industry. The DGA says it will continue to take concrete action until statistical progress reflects gender equality among male and female directors.

Director and founding WSC member Nell Cox asked: “What does it mean when a culture marginalizes and objectifies girls and women in its most potent and compelling media form? Does it matter that one half of the population sees only a distorted image of itself on screen, and what purpose does this distorted picture serve?” 

CORRECTION Sept. 22, 11 a.m. pst - The percentage of women who direct movies was incorrectly stated in an earlier version. as was the year the committee was formed. 

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