Opinion: there is a greater awareness of gender inequality in the film industry, but this does not necessarily lead to action or change

By Susan Liddy, MIC Limerick

The award ceremonies are upon us and the song remains (pretty much) the same: the dominance of the white male and the absence of women and diversity. We know more women in the key creative roles of screenwriting, directing or producing, the so-called "holy trinity", would increase the numbers of female characters on-screen, foreground stories about women, result in less sexualised representations and increase the numbers of women being hired. 

But knowing is one thing; moving the dial is quite another. Awards season is primarily about tracking continuity and change in Hollywood film. But what's the story when we widen the lens and bring other countries into focus? 

The numbers game

The publication of statistics is crucial in making gender issues in the film industry visible so the extent of women’s absence cannot be shrugged off. In a review of 17 countries across the world, the Nordic countries consistently come out on top. Women’s participation in the key creative roles in Sweden, Norway Denmark and Finland are between 34% and 39% for screenwriters and directors and rise as high as 52% for producers. Despite Iceland’s impressive record on gender equality, women’s involvement in the film industry is surprisingly peripheral.  

Moving away from the Nordic countries, a decline in the percentages of women in all creative roles is immediately apparent. Austria, Germany, Portugal, New Zealand, US, and Poland tip well below 30%. In Italy, only 12% of films directed by women receive public funding. The UK has fluctuated between 10% and 13% of female directors over the years, though screenwriters and producers fare a little better at 20% and 27% respectively. Overall, the statistics show that we are a far cry from achieving the 5050x2020 challenge thrown down by Anna Serner and the Swedish Film Institute in Cannes in 2016.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Annie Doona and James Hickey from Screen Ireland on plans to promote greater equality and diversity in the sector through funding.

Ireland has achieved considerable progress since December 2015 when Screen Ireland introduced a gender policy and, later on, a suite of gender equality initiatives. In 2018,  projects with female screenwriters and directors attached increased to 36% and 45% respectively. It's a cause for celebration when one translates dry statistics to real women who finally get their film off the ground, but it is too early to assess if it is sustainable or merely an exceptional year. 

Show me the money

The involvement of public funders in levelling the playing field is crucial. However, they are not all equally committed to gender equality and not all stakeholders want change. One battle is to get more women's films funded to production stage, which is still an on-going one. But it is only part of the problem. An increase in production titles may work to conceal the fact that women are not getting an equal share of the available funds. For example, all funding tracks in Germany, from script development to production funding to release and marketing, are marked by a gender imbalance. 

When women are funded, it tends to be for short films, documentaries or low budget features but not the bigger budget films: lower budget, lower risk. This is true for Australia, Ireland, Norway, Portugal, Poland, Sweden, US, UK and Canada, to name just a few. In the UK, women are more likely to make documentaries with a budget under £0.5million than any other genre and, proportionally more than their male colleagues. 

In Poland, women’s share in 2017 was lowest among directors of full-length feature films (14%) and higher amongst short feature films (27%) and documentaries (30%).  Similarly, despite the National Film Board of Canada achieving 5050 funding distribution for (mainly) documentaries, Telefilm Canada struggles with the gender gap on films with budgets over $2.5 million. 

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Myles Dungan examines the early days of the film industry in Ireland and, in particular, the Film Company of Ireland

Images of ourselves

Films with white, male-driven, narratives are the norm. Despite the pioneering work on gender equality by the Swedish Film Institute, the same is true in the wider Swedish film industry. Films with a male lead have, on average, a 33% higher budget than films with a female lead. Female protagonists are linked to lower production budgets, fewer screenings, lower PR-budgets and consequently smaller audience.  In Norway, between 2016 and 2018, the number of protagonists actually decreased a little to 36.5%. Female protagonists make up about one third of characters in Finnish films and that figure was just under 17% in Germany. In Italy, there are other pressing concerns: stereotypes abound with young female characters in highly sexualised roles, often with much older men. 

What's next?

The overall picture is one of continuing underrepresentation, with a striking number of similarities across the world. Change is slow, fragile, inconsistent and often a case of two steps forward and one step back. There is a greater awareness of gender inequality, but awareness does not necessarily lead to action or long-term structural change. 

Consistent and persistent global activism harnesses the power of strategic collaboration and keeps gender equality in the spotlight. But previous waves of activism have slipped into historical darkness, often without lasting change. What is pressing today can slide off the radar tomorrow and activists can suffer from burnout.

Finding new approaches, of both the carrot and stick variety, is key. For instance, equality as a requirement for funding is at the heart of the National Film Board of Canada’s success. UK activists Lenny Henry and Marcus Ryder are lobbying for tax relief for film and television productions that meet diversity targets; Screen Ireland’s new Skills Development Plan has a gender component and it must accompany applications for the tax incentive scheme, Section 481. Organisations in Germany and Ireland are calling for gender quotas to kick-start real change.

But for now, the glass is less than half full. How long can women reasonably be expected to wait? Martha Lauzen cautions that the film industry only changes when it is compelled to do so. Are we even nearly at that point? Time will tell. 

Dr Susan Liddy is a Lecturer in the Department of Media and Communication Studies at MIC Limerick. She is Chair of Women in Film and Television Ireland, Chair of the Equality Action Committee, a board member of the Writers Guild of Ireland and an advisory board member of Women in Film and Television International 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ