“It Led Us To Investigate the Systemic Discrimination Against Women.”

Discrimination in Hollywood is not new. Women not receiving equal opportunities in entertainment is the result of decades of bias. Melissa Goodman is the director of the LGBTQ, Gender & Reproductive Justice Project at the American Civil Liberties Union in California. She dives into the battle of making change in an industry not built to support the success of women and covers why no one is being held accountable. 


The Inclusive: Tell me who you are, what you do and what the ACLU is and does. 

Melissa Goodman: My name is Melissa Goodman. I direct the LGBTQ, Gender & Reproductive Justice Project here at the ACLU of Southern California. That is a very long title and quite a mouthful, but what it means is I direct all of our legal, policy, organizing work on gender equity in particular here in the southern California region. I’ve been with ACLU going on 13 years. At the ACLU basically, I like to describe it to people as we work for all of you. We work to defend the Bill of Rights and all of your constitutional rights. We do that in the courts, we do that in legislatures, we do that in the court of public opinion, and we do it with administrative agencies as well. 

The Inclusive: How did you start getting wrapped up in this Hollywood thing?

Melissa Goodman: This Hollywood thing. At the end of 2012, I moved here to LA from our New York office. Soon after I moved here, I was actually contacted by a number of women directors who wanted to bring our attention to problems of gender discrimination in the industry. It led to many more conversations and it led us to really launch what was a two-year investigation into whether there was systemic discrimination in film and television against women. 

The unsurprising answer we came to was yes. And we discovered that this was not only a very kind of troubling problem you sort of read about in the newspapers or you might sort of scratch your head and say, “Oh, I wish Hollywood didn’t really work that way.” We came to the conclusion that it was a really serious civil rights problem that deserved our attention and, also, the attention of federal civil rights enforcement agencies as well. 

The Inclusive: Explain what you mean that it’s a civil rights problem.

Melissa Goodman: The bottom line is, frankly, it’s very simple. Generally, in employment, employers cannot discriminate on the basis of sex or gender. 

The Inclusive: Based on what? 

Melissa Goodman: There are federal laws and state laws that very clearly and specifically prohibit sex discrimination in employment.

The Inclusive: When did those laws come about? Was it the Civil Rights Act?

Melissa Goodman: The federal laws have been in place ever since we enacted the Civil Rights Act in the early to mid-1960s and California has their own set of very strong and protective gender discrimination laws as well. 

The Inclusive: So these are state laws, not just federal? 

Melissa Goodman: They’re state and federal laws. It’s a little bit more complicated than that, but most people who work here in California are protected under both federal law and state law that protect people from sex discrimination. The bottom line is that sex discrimination in employment is illegal and Hollywood does not ultimately just get a free pass from following sex discrimination laws just because they’re Hollywood or just because of the cultural product that they make. 

The Inclusive: Have you ever wondered why this is going on so long in Hollywood? It seems to be so behind other industries and they don’t really take care of this problem.

Melissa Goodman: There’s a lot of reasons that this kind of problem became so long-running and so entrenched. Discrimination is a very deep, cultural thing in our society, in workplaces. It’s in our minds and it drives a lot of what we do, consciously and unconsciously. This industry, in particular, I think part of what has made it so entrenched and such an intractable problem is that, one, there’s not a lot of real incentives out there to solve it without a lot of external pressure. 

The Inclusive: Why would the studios even care about this issue? There seems to be no impetus for them. I realized this after 100 interviews, the studios will be happy with status quo. They continue to make a lot of money.

Melissa Goodman: That’s right.

The Inclusive: What’s going to stop them?

“Once I really started looking at the data, it was really shocking to me.”

Melissa Goodman: One of the reasons that the ACLU decided to get involved in this issue is that we did actually see that there was a role for us. For intractable civil rights problems, you really need a sort of outside game with outside pressure and an inside game. There needs to be internal industry influences and incentives driving people towards particular outcomes to change a very discriminatory system. But at the end of the day, for most civil rights problems and discrimination problems, you also need external pressure. You need a hammer coming from somewhere else. 

There’s great people doing great work to try to adjust this problem from within the industry, but we need to be a watchdog here, and not only be a watchdog and bring the power of the ACLU, and the microphone that the ACLU has to the issue, but also call it to the attention of federal civil rights agencies that have particular powers to enforce civil rights laws, and to raise it up as a serious legal problem that can come with real legal action, threat of money losses for the studios, threat of legal action that they really need to think about. 

The Inclusive: Let me ask you, when you first got these calls, were you kind of like, “Eh, who cares about this problem?”

Melissa Goodman: When we first got these calls and met with a small group of women, my first instinct was, as it always is, I need to learn more. I wasn’t necessarily thinking like, “Oh, yes. This is the top civil rights problems I need to be addressing my attention to.” There’s lots of problems out there in the world.

The Inclusive: And it’s not like you have a ton of resources.

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Melissa Goodman: Yeah. We can only do so many cases or so many advocacy projects, but I have to say once I really started looking at the data, it was really shocking to me. In one of the largest industries in southern California, certainly it’s most culturally innovative and influential. The idea that such minuscule percentages of women were getting the opportunity to direct, and have employment, and tell stories, was very disturbing to me. The numbers were bad enough, just looking at the data and the research that had already existed, it suggested to me that we needed to do more digging. What we needed to do was actually start talking to women and get stories because, you know, numbers only tell so much of the story. It was very clear from the numbers that there was discrimination going on. There’s actually a concept in the Supreme Court. The federal Supreme Court has this concept of the inexorable zero. If the statistics in a discrimination situation are so low, you can basically presume that there is some discrimination happening. The numbers, when I looked at the studies, were so low that I thought it was safe to assume that a court would agree that there was a presumption of some discrimination happening.

“We decided that we had to do something about it.”

So we decided to launch a story collection project. We did a lot of different things. We set up a form on our website where people could connect with us anonymously or under a confidential situation and tell their stories. We put out flyers throughout the community through a network of women to say, “If you think you’ve been discriminated against or you don’t think you’ve had the same kind of career opportunities that your male peers have, would you be willing to talk to the ACLU?” We didn’t go out too loudly to industry events with those, we kind of passed them out, word of mouth. 

Over the course of two years, we got to speak with at least 50 women who were willing to come forward and talk to us and tell us in very great detail their stories. Now we’ve spoken to many more than that, but within that window, it was about 50 women. After those stories and looking at the data, it was very clear to me that women directors in the industry faced very common, very systematic, very repeated barriers to getting employment and getting employment at the same rates as their male peers. We decided that we had to do something about it.

There were a number of reasons that we decided to take this further, the first being that the ACLU thinks employment discrimination is a terrible thing and that we should have no industry, particularly not very lucrative and influential industries, where women are basically shut out. Women are basically shut out from directing big budget television, they’re severely underrepresented directing television. This was an employment discrimination problem. 

But the other reason we felt it very important to devote ACLU resources to this is the much broader cultural impact that bias behind the camera in Hollywood has. There is a direct link between the structural bias that gets replicated in film and television through the bias of most of that being created and made and told through the lens of white men that sinks into us and sinks into our brains, into our beings. It directly impacts how young women and girls see their place in the world, where they see whether the world has certain opportunities for them or if there are certain limitations. It shapes how boys think about themselves and see women. 

All of that stuff matters and we strongly believe, and the data strongly suggests, that bias behind the camera in Hollywood is directly related to all the other discrimination and bias that we fight at the ACLU in all other facets of life. It’s all connected. So we felt it was extremely important to use the ACLU resources and the ACLU pulpit, so to speak, to address this problem.

The Inclusive: When you started this, did you say, “I better look back at past investigations to see exactly if this problem has been dealt with before?”

Melissa Goodman: Once we got into the data and started talking to enough women to think, “You know what, I think there really is …” Title Seven, that’s the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination, “… that we really think there’s legal violations here. We said, “We can’t be the first people to have ever noticed this before.” You know, what’s happened in the past. We did come to learn, and I didn’t know this, that the Department of Justice and the EEOC, which is the agency tasked with enforcing Title Seven, though their powers were slightly different at that time, had actually spent a number of years doing hearings, investigating and ultimately actually bringing some legal actions against studios for race and gender discrimination.

The Inclusive: They basically gave them goals and timelines, right?

Melissa Goodman: That’s correct. They gave them kind of targets to hit and timelines in which to increase opportunity. What’s interesting about that, at the time there were actually so few women directors that I don’t even think the requirements touched on director hiring. There were ultimately actually some legal settlements with the studios. I don’t think any of those actually had any requirements with respect to women directors. 

 This enforcement work happened in the 70s. Well, what happened? Because obviously we know that, particularly for women directors, the numbers have just, over decades, have not changed. There’s been no movement in terms of actually increasing the number of women directors who get film and TV jobs. So, why did this not work? When you read a lot of the work that came after and people’s opinions about it, it seemed very clear that the problem was the federal agencies sort of lost interest in this issue and stopped really closely monitoring those agreements and kind of let things slide. 

This industry is set up in a way to make it nearly impossible for women and people of color to succeed. You start with a significant disadvantage. Even if we could just kind of get that message out there and get that validation out there to women in the industry, I consider that a success.

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