It’s no question that when it comes to breaking into the film/TV industry it’s not only what you know, it’s who you know. Increasingly young talented individuals with promise net their opportunities through networking and finding a position as an assistant in order to gain valuable insight into the business. Alternately, others seek counsel, advice and feedback from esteemed members of the film and television community. While many various forms of mentorship exist, one form of this practice barely does: males mentoring females.
I don’t need to re-post the litany of studies showing gender and racial discrepancies in “above the line” positions in Hollywood. By now I’d imagine most are familiar with the gaping statistics between male/female opportunities in writing, directing and producing roles.
Many experts contend that the best way to provide for more diversity is to increase the mentorship of young women and people of color. If more women and people of color are mentored by those in power (the majority of those people being white men) then it stands to reason that more women and people of color would get opportunities to advance.
Unfortunately, the reality is much different.
A recent study conducted by The Harvard Business Review over a period of several years tracked male and female mentorship of individuals with MBAs in top firms across the country. The study concluded that while females got a lot of mentorship, they struggled to be promoted as often as the men who were also mentored. The study noted a trend of perpetual mentorship of women that rarely resulted in suggested placement, or sponsorship.
The study suggested that instead of mentorship, programs in corporate settings should be more focused on sponsorship than perpetual advice-giving.
Men and women alike say they get valuable career advice from their mentors, but it’s mostly men who describe being sponsored. Many women explain how mentoring relationships have helped them understand themselves, their preferred styles of operating, and ways they might need to change as they move up the leadership pipeline. By contrast, men tell stories about how their bosses and informal mentors have helped them plan their moves and take charge in new roles, in addition to endorsing their authority publicly.
This seems true of Hollywood as well, whereas most women tend to remain perpetual assistants, more often than not it is men who are referred for development executive positions or other promotions that women see less of.
The more troubling trend in Hollywood is that few white men actually mentor women or people of color to begin with. In his blistering critique of Hollywood and race, Chris Rock noted being given his chance by Black comics. Rock in turn noted how he tries to help other up and coming Black artists. Talk to many women, and the result is the same, women helping other women.
Rarely do you hear of the times when white men step up to mentor and sponsor women. There are several possible reasons for this trend, but one seems to come up most frequently: sexual attraction.
Each time the question is asked, “how come more men aren’t mentoring women,” men in the business say it’s because they don’t want to murky the boundary between professionalism and personal relationships. The gross assumption is that because of the amount of time spent together, it is assumed the woman may develop romantic feelings for her mentor. An interesting conversation to that effect occurred on twitter a month back where a notable screenwriter critiquing the practice noted, “there must be certain landmines to avoid,” referring of course to sexual relationships. Another writer/comic took it a step further saying some men don’t mentor women because “men are creeps.” The conversation in full can be read here.
I find these assumptions most unfortunate, but in a business full of attractive people and rampant flirtation and sexual advances, it does not shock me. Most women at one time or another have felt they were victims of unwanted sexual advances. Other women have even felt attracted to their mentor, or professional colleague and have willingly engaged in a sexual relationship. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find my own former mentor extremely attractive, and that I would be hard pressed to turn him down if it ever came to that.
Unfortunately, this power dynamic is one that also can encourage abuse or unwarranted assumptions. Even where two people are perfectly capable of having a casual sexual relationship and maintaining professional courtesy, this rarely ends well for the woman. For one, people will likely find out and that looks worse on the woman’s part, professionally speaking, than the mans. Another reason is women more often then men are assumed to find emotional attachment in the act, and so men get defensive as a result.
The easy advice to give here is to avoid such a professional/romantic entanglement. The better advice here would be to suggest folks merely act like adults.
This shouldn’t even be a valid excuse. To assume women shouldn’t be mentored by men because of sexual tension or attraction is absurd. In the 21st century to even be having conversations like the one linked to above is frankly asinine. Yet in Hollywood it is probably the biggest excuse for men not mentoring more women. It is almost analogous to the 60s, where some men would avoid hiring attractive secretaries because of their wife, or that some men would get rid of women they’ve slept with after they felt the woman was becoming too clingy. It’s almost like an episode of Mad Men, except it’s no longer 1965. But yet it’s still always the woman’s fault, and the woman pays the price.
Ultimately, whatever ridiculous excuses are given, the stats reflect a growing gap between male and female mentorship and subsequent opportunities. If we are to change things we need to put all cultural assumptions and excuses aside and tell the white men in power to help those underrepresented. We cannot just leave it to statistical minorities to mentor other statistical minorities. If that were the case, the stats would never change. While it is no doubt easier as a white guy to promote and champion the kid who’s “just like me,” that only continues to restrict opportunities for people who are not white, upper-middle class men. I’m not sure there’s any easy answer to this problem, but I do believe it begins with white men actually taking action to live up to their vocal support for diversity. It’s time for white men to actually mentor those underrepresented in the Hollywood community, and stop leaving it to be the problem of other underrepresented artists and leadership figures.