ACLU calls for Hollywood gender bias investigation

The Hollywood sign in Hollywood, California
Robyn Beck | AFP | Getty Images
The Hollywood sign in Hollywood, California

The American Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday called on state and federal agencies to launch an investigation into gender discrimination in Hollywood, an issue that the ACLU calls, "the systemic failure to hire women directors at all levels of the film and television industry," in a statement released by the organization.

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In letters penned by the ACLU of Southern California and the national ACLU Women's Rights Project, the two branches of the national non-profit organization urged the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing,the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs to launch probes into, and address, "the widespread exclusion of women directors from employment in directing episodic television and feature films."

Each 14-page letter,sent to the three government agencies and published on the ACLU website, cites staggering statistics, studies and news articles detailing a lack of females in directors' positions.

This request comes two months after actress Patricia Arquette made an Oscars speech on female rights, and three months after the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles published a report analyzing diversity in the Hollywood entertainment industry. The ACLU cites the university's report in its plea.

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"Women directors simply aren't getting a fair opportunity to succeed, because of systemic discrimination," said Ariela Migdal, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project, in a statement on Tuesday. The report states the ACLU interviewed "or collected information from" 50 female directors in preparation for the report.

"It's time for our civil rights enforcement agencies to take action to ensure that women have a level playing field."

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In 2014, the ACLU states, women comprised a mere 7 percent of directors on the top 250 grossing films of the year. The San Diego State University Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film found this number is 2 percentage points lower than in 1998.

In an analysis of more than 220 television shows,representing about 3,500 episodes, the letter mentions, women comprised 14 percent of directors in the years 2013 to 2014, a report by the Directors Guild of American found in September 2014.

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"When it comes to film, the large studios have virtually shut women out of directing big-budget movies for years, and the problem is not improving with time," the letter states.

Chris Hansen, director of the film and digital media division at Baylor University, told CNBC that a lack of female representation in director positions is a problem.

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"It's definitely clear that the numbers don't add up," said Hansen, who estimates that female students comprise about 40 percent of the film and digital media program at Baylor University in Texas.

In 2013, as detailed in UCLA's report and cited by the ACLU as statistical evidence, women directed 6.3 percent of 174 theatrical films analyzed by UCLA.

Only 13 percent of directors in 2013 and 2014 in prime-time network TV were women, the ACLU states, citing the report by San Diego State University. When combining network, cable, and Netflix, women still comprised only 13 percent of directors.

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Hansen said there is a perception that a man who has not previously directed an action movie can adapt easily because he is a man, "but a woman can't direct a superhero movie unless she has already shown some acumen for directing action—which is one of the reasons why Michelle McLaren reportedly initially was hired for Wonder Woman—because she has directed episodes of Game of Thrones."