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ACLU calls for investigation into lack of female directors in Hollywood

"Blatant and extreme gender inequality in this large and important industry is shameful and unacceptable," said the ACLU's Melissa Goodman.
David Oyelowo, left, as Martin Luther King, Jr., discussing a scene with Director Ava DuVernay, right, on the set of the film, \"Selma,\" from Paramount Pictures and Pathe. (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures/AP)
As one of the few female directors in Hollywood, Ava DuVernay earned a \"Best Director\" Golden Globe nomination for the film \"Selma.\" Here, in this photo released by Paramount Pictures, David Oyelowo, left, as Martin Luther King, Jr., discusses a scene with DuVernay, right, on the set of \"Selma.\"

Calling out “the systemic failure to hire women directors at all levels of the film and television industry,” the ACLU of Southern California and the national ACLU Women’s Rights Project on Tuesday demanded that federal and state civil rights agencies investigate the hiring practices throughout Hollywood for possible instances of gender discrimination.

"Blatant and extreme gender inequality in this large and important industry is shameful and unacceptable," said Melissa Goodman, director of the ACLU Southern California's LGBTQ, Gender & Reproductive Justice Project, in a press release. "The time has come for new solutions to this serious civil rights problem."

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Citing statistical evidence, as well as a year’s worth of interviews with 50 women in the directing industry, the ACLU determined that women were “effectively excluded” from directing big-budget blockbusters and “seriously under-represented” in directing for television. The organization sent its findings Tuesday to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, and the Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. If those agencies choose to launch an investigation and then uncover bias against women, they could file legal charges against studios, networks, and talent agencies under California or federal civil rights laws, all which prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sex.

Such action is not unprecedented. In the 1960s and 1970s, federal civil rights agencies and the California Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights attempted to tackle gender and race discrimination in Hollywood through settlement agreements with the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers, major studios, and some unions. But those monitoring and enforcement efforts were insufficient, the ACLU argued, and ceased altogether in the mid-1970s.

“Despite these efforts, gender disparities in hiring directors have become worse over time,” reads one of the letters addressed Tuesday to the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. “Initiating Director’s charges to investigate systemic discrimination against women directors is necessary, well within the agency’s authority, and consistent with the Department’s enforcement goals.”

Numerous studies conducted over the past few years have reinforced the ACLU’s claims. According to a University of Southern California Annenberg examination of the 100 top-grossing films of 2013, just two of 107 directors — or 1.9% — were female. A 2014 Directors Guild of America report found a similar dearth of women behind the scenes in television, with just 14% of TV episodes produced in the 2013-2014 season having female directors.

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On screen-women in Hollywood also face challenges. A recent analysis by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found that females comprised a measly 12% of protagonists in the top-grossing films of 2014. And last year’s Sony hack revealed that Academy Award-winner Jennifer Lawrence — one of the most famous female actors in Hollywood — was paid less than her male costars in American Hustle.  At this year’s Academy Awards, Boyhood star Patricia Arquette devoted a good chunk of her “Best Actress in a Supporting Role” acceptance speech to championing equal pay for women.