Are the Hollywood Guilds & Labor Unions Also to Blame for Dismal Female Employment Numbers?

Recognize the woman at the outset of this post? That’s Kathryn Bigelow, Academy Award winning director and of course a “female director.” She is also the example every diversity naysayer in the industry uses to illustrate their claim that “women are doing just fine in the business.”

The reality is much different of course. Women continue to struggle, even more so today than 20 years ago. However, there is one thing I will agree with these diversity naysayers on, and that is the repeated claim that “there are very few women directors and writers to hire.”

The DGA and its diversity task force frequently cite their studies, and comparable studies done by USC and UCLA, that women only made up 14% of directors on television projects over the past year. They cite similar abysmal numbers concerning feature films, where women directed only 8% of films theatrically released in 2013.

Looking at these percentages alone, one would be hard pressed to conclude things are going well for women in Film/TV. The numbers are equally depressing on the female writer front, with women writing only 27% of TV content and 16% of film according to the 2014 WGA Writers Report.

And yet, these are not the most shocking numbers.

These numbers are actually in line with the percentage of female membership in the Guilds themselves!

While the DGA and WGA West do not make percentage of their membership available by gender-breakdown, they do provide a list of members by gender. Using the search by gender function on both the DGA website, and the WGA West website, I was able to assign percentage of females in full membership of both guilds. Since most Writers/Directors come from NY and LA, I limited my calculations to include the overall makeup of women members residing in these cities (so the margin of error is around +/- 3%).

The Directors Guild of America is comprised of only 15.9% female membership.

The Writers Guild of America West is comprised of only 11.9% female membership. The Writers Guild East does not even allow people to search their website for a writer by gender or minority status!

When Hollywood goes to Guilds to find diverse employment (assuming they even do, for most hires are referrals which result in limited diversity), they only have a small number of women to choose from to begin with.

So Hollywood is actually not incorrect when they make the claim that there are few women directors or writers to choose from.

The guild’s are to some degree are OK with this, even if they actively commission Diversity Task Forces and panels ad nauseam.

Why? Well, it begins with understanding the actual purpose of a guild or labor union and the barriers to entry that exist to find yourself a member of one.

Guilds and labor unions by their very nature are anti-competitive. If you’ve followed American politics at all, you may have heard of “Right to Work States.” These states believe that independent of union membership, folks who are qualified to do the job can take that job independent of whether they belong to a labor union for that respective trade. Unions do not like Right to Work States because they want THEIR members to get those jobs. The reason they want their members to get these jobs is because they want the union dues inside their coffers versus in the savings of private companies that hire non-union work.

The same is true of Hollywood labor unions and guilds. Virtually no domestic production is working outside of the confines of the DGA or WGA. A studio film is not going to hire outside of the union for a writer, or a director. Also based on production locations, the crew itself is unlikely to not belong to a labor union like the IATSE or local branches of various “bellow the line” positions.

The unions have a vested interest in limited competition because they want to see their members get all the work. When it comes to employment in Film/TV, that work is already very hard to come by.

So why are there not more female members inside these guilds or unions? It all begins with how one can even obtain membership.

A recent study done by allies of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) crunched BEA data to conclude that women only comprised 23% of film crews, and a meager 5% of Camera and Electrical departments.

In order for someone to gain membership in the Directors Guild of America, dependent on local regulations, on average a candidate must have approximately 1500 hours on a DGA signatory project (major Film/TV show). To even get in this position, one needs to work their way up on a film crew to get in the position to work as a DGA trainnee, find an entry-level camera position or find a way to develop an independent project as a DGA signatory. There are few exceptions to these rules for commercial/notable reasons.

If women only comprise 23% of film crews, and only 5% of Camera and Electrical departments, that means few women will qualify to join the DGA.

The picture is similar for women trying to get into the WGA West/East. In order to become a member in full standing, a writer must satisfy 24 units of work (which vary based upon project type). The only type of work that results in 24 units is the sale of a feature screenplay or the bible to a TV or miniseries project of at least four hours.

If women comprise such a low number of writers inside writers rooms, they are not exactly going to be racking up the units required. As far as the sale of a script goes, the number of specs sold has steadily declined over the years as studios and production companies focus on franchises. The best shot at selling a script remains landing on the Black List (a list of the industries favorite un-produced screenplays of the year – note the subjective word favorite). Sadly, the Black List is also largely void of women (women were less than 20% of the 2013 List) with some men landing on the 2013 List twice!

With competition stiffer than ever for an increasingly smaller number of jobs available domestically, the labor unions and guilds have little incentive to focus on new-member initiatives. As mentioned, unions are responsible to their current members. In the case of Hollywood, that membership is still overwhelmingly white-male. While these guilds and unions do receive a fee from new members, that dollar amount is a much smaller percentage of their overall financial picture than are the receipts from their more profitable members, which also skews white-male according to the above linked Writers and Directors reports from this year.

The obvious problem is that the guilds just do not have the member numbers to achieve diversity initiatives on their own, no matter how many initiatives they form. Regarding the makeup of the numbers of working women in the industry, many women are actually double counted in industry-provided statistics, meaning only a small number of the same women and people of color are working, a-la the Kathryn Bigelow syndrome: “Bigelow won an Oscar, things are looking up for women in film!”

So how can we ultimately achieve better representation of women and minorities in Film/TV?

Through State and Federal regulation.

Unfortunately, it is not in the industries best interest to self-police when it comes to diversity hires. With numbers stagnant for years, it is clear that film crews have not budged in favor of more diverse representation behind the scenes. When film school enrollment is near 50/50 for women as it is men, there is clearly a disconnect when it ultimately comes time to hire.

Film and TV continue to receive incredible amounts of tax-payer funded incentives to film on location. The Federal Government also gave the Film/TV community a sizable percentage of the infamous Obama ‘American Recovery and Re-Investment Act.’ It’s time to force films and television to be in compliance with Federal laws regarding diversity in employment and Title IX rules.

While certain incentives are linked to diversity hires across the country, these rules and regulations are not currently strict enough. Crews can hire women and people of color as non-speaking extras to comply with diversity regulations, all while critical departments remain overwhelmingly white and male. Regulations should require a bare minimum in ALL departments if a film or TV show is going to be the recipient of tax payer subsidies.

Additionally, the Department of Labor should look into the hiring practices of film & production companies for possible discrimination. The industry has failed to take the concerns of females and POC seriously, and has thus again failed to self-police. If it is indeed discrimination, the Federal government by law is responsible to remedy the situation.

Sadly, an anonymous member of one of the Guilds told me this conversation has been held to little effect. The industry does not want to have outsiders policing its hiring practices, because again, it’s not in their best interest to change what at present is a profitable status quo. While many guilds have tried to encourage trainees who are women or POC, they haven’t done much in terms of changing the overall makeup of the guilds or production sets themselves.

That does not mean we should not stop trying.

If Guilds and industry insiders are serious about diversity, they will champion diverse hiring practices at all levels, including in non-union positions that lead to employment within a union itself. In the interim, I have considered the idea of a 501(c)4 tax-exempt organization aimed at cooperating with the industry to educate insiders about diversity practices and provide significant training to women & people of color for roles that lead to employment with guilds and unions. I have also privately proposed the idea of an all-female equivalent to the Black List and other pre-guild talent searches that focus on underrepresented segments of the film and TV community.

We cannot achieve diversity by focusing only on the members already in the guild or union, though they are obviously important too. We need to be concerned about the fact that women currently represent only 23% of a film’s crew on average. Numbers are unlikely to budge if we are not focused on the next generation of diverse talent. And so diversity begins with entry-level hiring and practices best aimed at encouraging an equal shot at entry into elite guilds and unions.

While change may be hard for some to swallow, I believe more Kathyrn Bigelow’s and Nora Ephron’s in our industry would be a good thing for the industry and guilds overall, don’t you? Let’s all work to be the change, because diversity does not hinge on any one organization or show. It must be a combined effort, and it must not wait any longer than it already has.

Hollywood Happy Endings


At the end of Jean Luc Goddard’s Le Mepris (Contempt), Brigitte Bardot’s character Camille runs off with a producer in his fancy Alfa Romeo convertible. Following the gradual collapse of her relationship with Paul, she finds what she believes to be happiness through her new found freedom. Before she can realize her new life with Mr. Bigshot, the car is wrecked in a fiery accident and the movie comes to an abrupt close.

Poor Brigitte can never find happiness, not in Contempt.

Made in 1964 at the height of the French New Wave, Le Mepris was a subtly brilliant film, making use of a cramped production design to illustrate the cage-like feeling of entrapment. The film explored the idea of Amour as it were meant to be explored in a painfully realistic light. There would be no happy ending to this romance, because there wasn’t supposed to be.

Life does not always come equipped with happy endings, no matter how hard we try to force their dreamlike reality upon us. Yet Hollywood and its profitable escapism has lead people to desire things impossible, to embrace the happy ending as the only possibility.

Hollywood does this in reality too. Beyond the shiny new sets and green-screens, Hollywood feeds this line of the happy ending to all who pursue it as career. Put in the struggle and the hard-work, and you will make it.

Self help gurus litter the Twitter landscape and the Blacklist (while useful) is happy to take aspiring writers money for mediocre notes (at best) even when those writers are not ready to submit to such a service. 

Hollywood loves to talk about the folks who make it, but rarely do we discuss all those who crash up against its pearly gates. This concept of Hollywood as heaven,  this idea of the “break” as savior is idolized by aspirings everywhere. So desperate for advice and some clarity, those vulnerable to dreams want justification for their pursuit of this heaven. Many in the business have not only been happy to give that justification, but to profit it from it as well.

Here’s the reality, you will probably not make it in this business. There is no guarantee any more than there is a set of rules you must follow in order to get your foot into heavens gates. There is no bible you can read. There is no crusade you must fight. There is no Templar you must convince. There is no trade you must take. There is nothing but the faith you have in yourself and the hope that you might be lucky enough with the right idea, at the right time to present that work to the right person.

Myself, I was happy to create this imagery in my head where I could run off with the producer who once was kind enough to advise me. This idea of “once I go to work for him, everything will be solved” was both a figment of my immaturity as it was exemplary of my inability to think rationally in a dream state. If the chance to work for him actually presented itself; the chance to escape through that red little sports car, the reality is that I would still be one accident away from not being happy again.

Our refusal to be happy with the present, to constantly seek justification for some hypothetical happy ending future has given us everything from an abundance of Hollywood Twitter gurus to irrational thinking that clouds the present. There is no guarantee for a happy ending. Whether your heaven is Hollywood or a trip to France in an Alfa Romeo with your lover, know that there is no guarantee for that future unless you can find happiness today.

The only way you can find happiness today is to live in the present, to escape contempt and to stop looking for justification for how to live your own life.