Why aren’t TV show-runners hiring female directors?

Just four nights ago at the 68th Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, two of the four directing awards went to female directors, Jill Soloway, and Susanne Bier, both of whom were the only female nominee in each of their respective categories. Upon taking to the stage and accepting her award, Soloway gave a call to arms in her speech: “topple the patriarchy!” – a sentiment that was widely shared in gif format the following day. It was her second consecutive win in the category, contributing to an historic streak for female directors.

Successes such as these are more incredible in the face of statistics highlighting the huge gender disparity in directors hired for episodic television series. Just recently, the Directors Guild of America (DGA) released its Episodic Television Diversity Report for the 2015-2016 season, accompanied by ‘best of’ and ‘worst of’ lists.

As per the DGA’s website:

Out of 299 series examined, 57 (19%) hired women or minorities to direct fewer than 15% of episodes – 30 of which (10%) hired no women or minority directors at all – landing on the DGA’s “Worst Of” list (which can be found at the end of the report).

Whilst the likes of American Crime, Jane the Virgin, and Soloway’s own Transparent  topped the ‘best of’ list with female & minority directors hired for at least 77% of episodes of their respective latest seasons, there were 30 series for which not a single woman and/or person of colour had been hired to direct, including the summer’s much-buzzed-about Stranger Things, and critical darling Fargo.

In anticipation of the Emmy award winner announcements, The Guardian carried out its own analysis of four different behind-the-scenes roles of the latest seasons of those shows nominated for Best Drama, Best Comedy, and Best Limited Series. Focusing on Director, Writer, Editor, and Cinematographer credits, their findings provided a wider view of behind-the-scenes hiring practices on those shows. Again, Transparent represented well, with 80% of directing credits, 76% of writing credits, and 100% of editing credits going to women. Similarly, American Crime made a strong impression, having hired a female cinematographer for the entirety of its second season, and with women having directed half the episodes, and receiving 60% of the editing credits for said second season. Once more however, Fargo painted a less positive picture with neither writing nor directing credits going to a single woman, and Game of Thrones’ only improvement upon this sad statistic was to have a slightly higher percentage of episodes edited by women.

The Guardian took its investigation a step further and decided to directly address the lack of gender parity in key roles on many of these shows. Upon realising that female film-makers are frequently asked about their experiences in the industry, the newspaper instead decided to question television show-runners on why they were not hiring women, and held them to account for the discrimination revealed by the statistics. Some of the responses from these creatives in charge exposed what could only be interpreted as a lack of effort put into diversifying the crew on their respective TV series.  So, what did they have to say?

Alec Berg, executive producer of Silicon Valley, observed that he and his co-show-runner, Mike Judge, direct many of the episodes on their show, providing fewer opportunities for women to do so. However, this explanation does not account for the additional male directors also hired to direct on the show. In their most recent season, Judge and Berg directed two episodes apiece, and hired three more directors for – again – two episodes each. With the exception of But I’m A Cheerleader helmer, Jamie Babbit, these other directors were men. If Berg and Judge truly wished to commit to providing women with more opportunities, could they not have hired female directors for all of the episodes they themselves did not direct? If the three additional directors on the show’s third season were all women, 60% of the directing credits would have gone to female filmmakers, instead of a paltry 20%.

A common excuse given for not hiring female directors is the misconception that there are too few with any experience, and that those few are constantly in high demand and thus often unavailable. This was the argument offered by co-show-runner of Better Call Saul, Peter Gould. I took the liberty to tweet Gould and inform him of The Director List, the database of over 1,000 female directors with experience in directing on a range of projects including feature films, documentaries, television episodes, music videos, and commercials.

The Director List’s own Twitter account later took the opportunity to tell him more:

@petergould Peter, check out our database of over 1k experienced female directors. Created to make your search easier!

— The Director List (@TheDirectorList) September 16, 2016

@petergould Filter by genre, region, medium: https://t.co/2u7stimzJf Let us know if you have Qs! #womendirect

— The Director List (@TheDirectorList) September 16, 2016

Databases like this offer a practical approach to demystifying the commonly held ideas regarding female film-makers, and prove that there is more than enough talent available for hire. Fortunately, there are people within the industry who recognise that hiring women is no more complicated than hiring men. An executive producer for American Crime, Michael J McDonald remarked just how easy it was to staff a project with women.

“There are hundreds of working women directors,” he told The Guardian. “If you have 22 episodes, I can name 22 top-notch female directors right now.”

When I copied him in on a tweet, praising his attitude, he took the time to reply and reiterated his earlier comments:

This exercise by Julia Carrie Wong at The Guardian is a welcome, refreshing change in how diverse hiring practices in the film & TV industry are reported on, and it would be good to see it replicated by others. Confronting producers with unfavourable statistics of their shortcomings not only serves to hold them accountable, and reminds them that many people are paying very close attention, but it also illustrates just how little effort some put into hiring anyone who is not white and male. We can only hope that exerting this kind of ‘in your face’ pressure will cause more creatives to reflect on how they hire and inspire them to make some positive changes. In the words of Jill Soloway: topple the patriarchy!


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