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Feds investigating gender discrimination in Hollywood, ACLU says

Director Kathryn Bigelow in December 2012. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

In 2010, the Academy Award for Best Director went to Kathryn Bigelow for the “Hurt Locker,” making her the first woman to ever win in that category — and only the fourth to have been nominated.

Six years later, she remains the first and only. No female directors have been nominated since, and as of the latest ceremony earlier this year, Alejandro Inarritu has won more Best Director Oscars than all the women in the film industry combined.

The awards ratio is a reflection of disproportionate representation at-large: Less than 10 percent of the top-250 grossing domestic films have been directed by women in recent years, according to data collected by San Diego State University.

But could the federal government change Hollywood?

One year after the American Civil Liberties Union called on the government to investigate the dearth of female directors in television and movies, the group announced that the government is doing just that.

In a statement on Wednesday, the ACLU of Southern California said the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs are conducting “a wide-ranging and well-resourced investigation into the [entertainment] industry’s hiring practices.” The EEOC, which generally does not comment on ongoing probes, has not confirmed an investigation.

But in a statement ACLU SoCal and the ACLU Women’s Rights Project said they were “pleased that the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs gave careful consideration to our findings and responded by launching a wide-ranging and well-resourced investigation into the industry’s hiring practices,” said Melissa Goodman, director of the LGBT, Gender and Reproductive Justice Project at the ACLU of Southern California. We are encouraged by the scope of the government’s process and are hopeful that the government will be moving to a more targeted phase.”

Amid calls for gender equity in Hollywood, the stakes are high.

Melissa Goodman, director of the LGBTQ, Gender and Reproductive Justice Project at the ACLU of Southern California, commended the agencies’ action, citing the ACLU investigation that she said prompted inquiry.

“In the year since our report was released, there has been much lip-service paid to furthering opportunities for women, but few definitive steps and no serious movement in the number of women directors hired,” Goodman said in the statement.

Through interviews and statistical analyses, the ACLU found last year that women were shut out of directing jobs as a result of “studios’, networks’, and producers’ intentional and discriminatory failure to recruit, consider, and hire qualified women directors.”

Women said they were pigeonholed into “women-oriented” projects, such as romantic comedies, and often excluded from other genres — action films, superhero franchises — altogether.

Such systemic practices, combined with the glaring disparities in the numbers, constitute clear gender discrimination, the ACLU argued.

A study by the data journalism website Polygraph shows that the status of women in Hollywood is bleak. Even 25 years after the trailblazing movie "Thelma & Louise," men still hold the majority of dialogue in most movies. (Video: Nicki DeMarco, Julio Negron/The Washington Post)

Speaking to Time following the report’s release last year, Bigelow herself concurred: “Hollywood is supposedly a community of forward-thinking and progressive people yet this horrific situation for women directors persists…Gender neutral hiring is essential.”

Multiple women in the entertainment industry told the Los Angeles Times that the EEOC has interviewed more than 50 women directors since last fall about how they were hired and what role organizations such as the Directors Guild of America played in their career development.

“They were just at the very beginnings of being able to understand the industry,” Maria Giese told the L.A. Times. “They asked about film schools. Who does the hiring? How do agencies work? Who pays you? Who signs the checks?”

Giese is an award-winning feature film director. She said she spoke with the EEOC officials for four hours.

The Directors Guild has not commented on the investigation. If discrimination is found, legal action could be taken against studios or talent agencies, according to the L.A. Times, but such a path could prove difficult given the sheer number of people involved in any film or TV production.

Goodman told the Associated Press that the investigators are not obligated to make their findings publicly available, nor are they required to take action at the inquiry’s close.

While the federal investigation is focused on opportunities for female directors, it comes at a time when the Hollywood wage gap between male and female actors has also faced great scrutiny.

Jennifer Lawrence, who won a Best Actress Oscar for “Silver Linings Playbook,” revealed in Lena Dunham’s newsletter last October that she learned she was being paid less than her male co-stars via the Sony hack.

“I got mad at myself,” Lawrence wrote. “I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early.” It occurred to her that she had been worried about coming off as a “spoiled brat” — the descriptor that a Sony producer used for a fellow actress in another leaked email. She concluded: “I just can’t picture someone saying that about a man.”

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