How Trump's Presidency May Affect Hollywood's EEOC Gender Probe

Illustration by Nishant Choksi

The investigation into systemic discrimination against female directors, which was launched by the commission last September, could take a step back as the president-elect moves into the White House.

In September 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission launched an investigation to uncover systemic discrimination against female directors. Hollywood's female helmers cheered the news, bemoaning their dismal representation with just 4.1 percent of top-grossing movies in 2002 to 2014, says a USC study. But at the time no one envisioned Donald Trump in the White House. Now many are wondering how Trump — whose candidacy was marred by allegations of groping — will affect the investigation as it continues into its second year.

"It's all a big chess game," says director Maria Giese, the first woman to offer testimony to the EEOC. "The investigation could go several ways."

For those still absorbing the broader implications of a Trump presidency, consider that he also will have an impact on the EEOC’s proceedings. Among Trump's first moves post-election was appointing Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions to head the Department of Justice.

"On the surface, Sessions looks bad for civil rights," says Giese. "He is on record as being against gay marriage, and equality is probably not a priority."

In addition, the EEOC’s general counsel, P. David Lopez, is stepping down this month, another vacant post that Trump will fill. Trump also likely will appoint a new chair to the EEOC given that current chair Jenny Yang’s term is up in July. That could be a blow to those looking for some sort of remedy to the current status quo, where female directors rarely crack the shortlist for studio directing assignments. Yang has championed equal pay as her primary issue and has supported the investigation. Another concern is that Vice President-elect Mike Pence has consistently opposed equal pay efforts. So far, Pence appears to wield greater influence in his role than past vice presidents (he is heading up Trump’s transition team).

Still, the EEOC is an independent agency that reports to Congress, like the FBI, and, as such, generally has wide latitude and discretion in what it chooses to pursue. But Trump may call for budget cuts to the EEOC. Again, that could be a silver lining.

"Historically, when faced with cuts, the EEOC tends to pursue high-impact, high-visibility, systemic cases," says Giese. "That could be good for women directors as that case is precisely those things: high-impact, high-visibility, and systemic."

But the real wild card is Trump's need to appear critical of the industry: Given how much Hollywood met his candidacy with disdain, The Apprentice's former star might save face by siccing the feds on studios and networks.

This comes as the EEOC is said to have moved from collecting directors' testimony to conversations with industry stakeholders.

"We are encouraged by the seriousness of the investigation and remain hopeful that it will be moving to a more targeted phase," says Melissa Goodman, a director of the LGBTQ, Gender & Reproductive Justice Project at the ACLU of Southern California. (An ACLU investigation led to the EEOC's actions.) "We are confident that the government will find the same systemic discrimination problems we found and push industry leaders to address the ongoing violations of the civil rights of women directors in the film and television industries."

Trump aside, Goodman is unsure of what the government’s next steps might be, given the confidentiality of the investigation. But she pointed to the fact the EEOC has publicly urged those with hiring power to step up and rectify the disparity, suggesting the government sees a widespread problem. One possible outcome is the EEOC issues one or more "commissioners charges" against studios, networks or even talent agencies citing discriminatory hiring practices. That would kick off a more formal investigation process where the EEOC has subpoena power (it currently does not). Then the process would likely move to mediation or settlement, where the goal is to get the charged party to agree to a series of concrete changes that would address discrimination. If that doesn’t work, then the government can file a lawsuit against the employer.

Though Goodman remains cautiously optimistic, she acknowledges that the Trump factor is a factor. “A new administration can set new enforcement priorities, and it remains to be seen whether ending discrimination will be a priority for this new administration,” she says. “But nothing immediately halts in any way, and the work that is happening will continue.”

A version of this story first appeared in the 2016 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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