The ACLU is asking federal and California civil rights agencies to investigate what it calls "the systemic failure" to hire female directors in the entertainment industry.
The ACLU of Southern California and the national ACLU Women's Rights Project said Tuesday they were moved to act after compiling statistical evidence of "dramatic disparities" in the hiring of women as film and television directors. This was bolstered, they said, by anecdotal accounts from more than 50 female directors.
"Hearing such an outcry about it, and when it's backed up with statistics, it's a pretty solid sign there's discrimination going on," Ariela Migdal, a senior attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project, said in an interview Tuesday.
Fewer women are working as directors today than two decades ago, according to the ACLU. It cites research that shows women represented only 7 percent of directors on the 250 top-grossing movies last year. That is 2 percentage points lower than in 1998.
"Women directors simply aren't getting a fair opportunity to succeed," Migdal said. "Our hope is that the involvement of the civil rights agencies and calling it what it is — a civil rights issue — will lead to concrete solutions."
Recent research by the University of Southern California's Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative found a general perception in Hollywood that stories by or about women are more niche than mainstream, and therefore less profitable. A recent study commissioned by the Sundance Institute and the advocacy group Women in Film shows women have comprised fewer than 5 percent of directors of top films during the past two decades.
The executive director of Women in Film said in a statement Tuesday that the organization is proud its study "provided a statistical foundation to the ACLU in addressing systemic failure to hire women directors in the film and television industry."
The statistics reflect the reports the ACLU gathered on its website from female directors "who were incredibly frustrated by the barriers they face in TV and film," Migdal said.
Filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, whose 2011 Sundance documentary explores how media portrayals of women have led to fewer women in positions of power, said in a statement Tuesday that she's personally witnessed discrimination against women in the entertainment industry. She said this was particularly true "against female directors, who are repeatedly told they're not as qualified to direct as men and who are blacklisted for speaking out."
The gender of the director matters because it influences what's seen on screen, said Melissa Silverstein, founder of Women and Hollywood, which advocates for gender parity in the entertainment industry. Movies directed or written by women are 10 times more likely to show a female protagonist than those written and directed by men, she said.
"When we don't see women reflected behind the scenes and on the screen, it basically tells us that we don't count," she said. "I want to live in a world where a little girl can dream of being a hero just as much as a little boy can because she sees multiple examples of heroic women. ... We need examples of heroic women making changes in our lives so boys and girls can see that it's not just a boy thing."
The Directors Guild of America's own research confirms the gender disparity. A study released in January shows men have made up 82 percent of first-time directors in episodic television over the past five years. Another DGA report found that only nine percent of guild-covered releases in 2013 were directed by women. That's 18 female directors (including co-directors) out of 191 films.
Calls and emails seeking comment from the directors' guild were not immediately returned.