Why Hollywood is Immune to Employment Discrimination Laws

Anita Hill is a professor at Brandeis University. She teaches law focused on race and gender equality at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management. 


The Inclusive: Tell me about gender disparity on screen in Hollywood. 

Anita Hill: I think people aren’t aware of it because people are not paying attention. There are so many issues to pay attention to I think in some ways people go to Hollywood for escapism and they go to the movies to maybe not think about gender inequity and when it comes down to it, it’s there and it’s obvious.  And it matters because what you’re learning from film is what gender expectations are. As adults we can look at it and we can say, ‘Well I can process this. I know as an adult how to think about myself as a competent and effective individual.’ But when you’re talking about the fact that many of these films are being viewed by young girls, what they’re learning is to normalize the sexualization of a young girl. They’re learning to normalize gender violence, and gender abuse. And they also are learning not to have confidence in their own abilities and their own effectiveness and power. So I think that we’ve got really important issues that are not being addressed in terms of the way women are presented in film and we’re sending really wrong messages not only to girls but to boys as well.  

TI: When you’re saying we’re not addressing it, who is not addressing it?

AH: I think as a society we’re not addressing it and I certainly think the industry isn’t fully addressing it. I think the industry is either not seeing it as a problem, or not seeing it as a problem that’s worth fixing because they’re still making money.

One hopes that things have changed since the EEOC investigation in 1969, but I don’t think they’ve changed dramatically. One of the things that is clear is that the industry does not do self-assessment. Much of the assessment about the inequities has come from outside groups or from research at schools. So I think that this is a telling factor that the industry will not do its own measure of gender inequities and racial inequities. The fact that there is a lack of transparencies in the way awards are given and lack of transparency in terms of pay inequity. Until very recently we didn’t know that leading men were getting much higher pay than leading women in these top rated movies, so I think a self-examination could be a good start to something that would move us forward. We need transparency about the results. 

“I think the industry is either not seeing it as a problem or not seeing it as a problem that’s worth fixing because they’re still making money.”

TI: Are there other industries that are better at it that could be used as a model for how the industry should work?

AH: Quite frankly many industries are going into this era kicking and screaming, if you will. I think the universities have to be more transparent. And some of the numbers that you read about in the film industry are so appalling, but it’s hard to compare. What is comparable to the film industry? Well, you can say universities, about 35% of university presidents are women, that’s a pretty good number. It’s much better than film industries. You could say 20% of the Senate are women, but it’s hard to compare the Senate, or universities, or even many other industries to the film industry because the film industry has a very special place. They are not only a business but they are creative, they create ideas, and then they present ideas, and I think that puts a significantly different burden than say a car manufacturer. So I think it’s hard to make comparisons, but I think it’s important for us to think about the role that the film industry plays and then how big an impact it can have on how equality really then gets to be played out in the larger culture. 

TI: But the industry seems to get a pass on employment discrimination laws.

AH: It has and I think it will continue to get a pass until there is in fact a major lawsuit against the industry. I think it will continue to get a pass until there is a major effort on the part of the public to push back on what is being done in the industry to promote equity. We talk about race and gender and occasionally there’s a bump, and there’s movement, but that’s not systemic change. Then we have a whole list of other identity factors that we need to be concerned about as well. There has to be a lawsuit, I would think, that would be even a class action lawsuit, something like that, against one of the major studios. I think that that’s the nature of the kind of suit that we’re talking about that really helps pull back the curtain, if you will, onto what is going on inside the academy and what’s going on inside these big production companies. How are decisions being made, and is it really the case that the same people continue to be hired as directors regardless of the availability of very qualified women and people of color who could be doing these jobs. So I think that that’s the kind of thing that we’re talking about and I’m not even sure that that kind of lawsuit needs to be won by the people bringing against the company, I think one of the things that the public benefits from is just knowing these things, and then you could have a ripple effect where the public starts to demand more. At this time in our society I think that’s going to be a really important element. We’re entering a new era of activism, social activism where people are engaged, they’re alert to the fact that women, people of color, people for religious purposes, people because of their sexual identity, are not being given a fair shake. We’re watching and seeing a response to it, whether it is a response to Fox Network and the problems that they’re having, or a response to Silicon Valley and some of the inequities that are apparent in those workplaces. So I think we’re aware, we’re asking questions, we’re getting information, and we’re demanding accountability, and by we I mean the public.

TI: A large proportion of producers, maybe even 30% are women. But directors are like 4-5%, they are not able to break the glass ceiling. I’m wondering if you can talk about why, what that difference might be.

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“We’re entering a new era of activism, social activism where people are engaged. They’re alert to the fact that women, people of color, people for religious purposes, people because of their sexual identity, are not being given a fair shake.”

AH: I’m not sure why that is, but there are a couple of things that come to mind. I was actually trying to look for something that’s comparable and I looked at the fact that of the top 24 orchestras in the country only 1 conductor, according to the last report that I read, only 1 is a woman. I think that that’s kind of where we are with women directors. Women conductors are scarce, women directors are scarce, especially when it comes to the high budget films. The independent films I think there’s much more success. It seems to me that where we can say that oh we’re basing this on artistic judgment, and our instincts, our artistic instincts, then it’s much easier for racism or misogyny to creep into that. I think that’s what’s happening in some of the decisions about who is going to be directing. You can almost cover up for your bias by saying, ‘Well this was an artistic decision, it wasn’t really about anything other than that.’ 

TI: It makes them immune to employment discrimination laws. How are other industries?  How do laws get enforced by other industries and how is that different from the film industry? Can you speak to that?

AH: Well, I can say that the benchmarks are different, but I think you’re going to have a problem in terms of employment laws and application when it comes to any kind of leadership role. We don’t see it in the top Fortune 100 companies, we don’t see the leadership challenges when it gets to the CEO level, how do you scrutinize the hiring of a CEO? I doubt seriously if there’s been a lawsuit against a major company because a person is not hired as a CEO. Part of that though, and I think this is a problem that you’re going to have in the academy, a part of that is that people don’t want to ruin their future opportunities by making a new blaze. So if they’re passed over for one film they’re still hopeful that they can get another film. If they’re passed over for some really major work they’re still hopefully that next they will be able to maybe make the cut and it’s hard for people to be able to step up and complain. It’s a small town with just a few people making the decisions so that is why it’s very hard for someone who is a director to raise a claim for discrimination. 

TI: So tell me why it’s important for women in Hollywood to speak out.

AH: Well we have women speaking up and it’s important because they set the example and if they don’t, I think very little will happen. I think that would also encourage the public to respond if women continue to speak up. I think there have been some very effective spokespeople and spokeswomen for social change that have come out in Hollywood and you have your people like Meryl Streep, you’ve got women like Patricia Arquette. They’ve been very effective in talking about fairness. I think Kerry Washington has been very outspoken about really wanting to be deciding what is being presented and not just being the person presenting the creative work but deciding what is going into the creative work. I think that if we don’t hear from them, if we don’t hear from the women who have power, and who have those platforms right now I think many of us might just assume that nothing is wrong.

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