“Sexism in post production: sometimes it’s exactly what you think. But mostly it isn’t.”
I first wrote that statement about six years ago, when even bringing up the concept of gender equality would garner eyerolls at best and death threats at worst. Thankfully I got far more of the former.
Those eyerolls came in dozens of comments on the article – most from men – many of which sought to tell me I had it wrong or I was being dramatic. (This led me to turning off commenting on all my posts. Not because they bothered me, but because I felt they didn’t deserve to have their nonsensical words immortalized next to thoughtful analysis for young women to see and internalize.)
Many responses on Twitter were similar, or supportive-with-exceptions (example: “I’ve always worked with so many women!”) A thread on the RedUser.net forums popped up with dozens of pages – unsurprising, since the main illustration of obvious sexism in my article was a bikini show at Red’s booth at NAB Show.
The purpose of my article was to demonstrate that while bikini shows were disgustingly sexist, they were the exception when it came to post production. My assessment was that the sexism and inequality experienced by below-the-line women wasn’t ogling and ass-slapping (and that it would be easy to stop if it were that). It was casual sexism and unconscious bias present in everyone regardless of gender. “It’s systemic. It’s passive. It’s cultural. Everyone participates in it every day.” And in many ways, that’s even harder to detect or correct.
Thankfully, many more people were ready to engage with this discussion of unconscious, inherent sexism in post production. Podcasts, blogs, notes of encouragement, emails from thankful young women, passionate brunch discussions, and even the first (as far as I know) panel on gender equality in post production featured at the 2015 NAB Show – with a line of people waiting to get in the room a half hour before it started. (The panel was featured in Indiewire, but also in a Forbes piece about fashion at NAB Show.)
Two years after that panel, the #MeToo Movement (a hashtag coined years prior by activist Tarana Burke) began to rise in fury as women repeated the phrase to demonstrate the widespread nature of harassment and assault. The virality and solidarity of the hashtag led to public conversations, which led to known abusers finally being toppled from power. Reform, legislation, media coverage, and training sessions have followed in periodic waves of renewed interest.
(And the way we speak about gender in the mainstream has shifted – while this article largely discusses “women”, the term is meant to encompass all those who identify as women. Most or all of what I discuss impacts non-binary people to an even greater degree, but most available data is on cisgender people.)
Since 2014, I’ve personally noticed fewer women being objectified at trade shows – the initial catalyst for my writings on gender equality. (I do still get ignored or presumed to be an assistant on a regular basis.) Pronouns are now far more present on forms and profiles and email signatures. Diversity committees of women have begun to shift to inclusion working groups with all kinds of people. There are signs that things are improving. That’s what I hear in discussions: I’m so glad this is getting better. It’s really improved.
But are they? Has anything changed for gender equality in post production since I wrote my first article about it? Do underrepresented communities feel improvement? It can be easy to see some signs and make assumptions that we’re on the right track, but we need real analysis to make a meaningful assessment. Is there notable change, and is that having an impact on women in the industry? And are there observations I made that were incomplete or inaccurate?
What do the numbers tell us?
Let’s look at representation first, because you can’t argue with numbers. (You think you can if you’re the internet, but really you can’t.) Plus, one of the loudest and most consistent recommendations made to combat sexism has been to simply hire women. How is that landing?
According to San Diego State University’s Celluloid Ceiling Report investigating employment on the top 500 films in 2015, women accounted for 21% of editors. In 2019, the number moved to 22%. The only trend seen in female employment in this role is stagnancy: 21% in 2015, 20% in 2016, 18% in 2017, 23% in 2018, and 22% in 2019. Going back to 1998 and narrowing the scope to the top 250 films, women were 20% of editors. (The newest numbers from 2020 only look at the top 250 or 100 due to the impact of the pandemic on the industry: 23% and 21% respectively.)
The most recent data from San Diego State University might be a year behind, but the big picture tells us what we need to know: if you plot those dots and connect them in a line graph, you’ve basically drawn a slightly wobbly flat line covering the entire lifetimes of this year’s college graduates.
The 2019 report added additional below-the-line measurements: women were 6% of VFX producers, 5% of sound designers, 10% of supervising sound editors, and 7% of composers. And in television the story is about the same, although there is some indication women could be improving on streaming platforms.
In top executive roles, USC Annenberg cited just 17% of the jobs were held by women in major media companies in 2019. One area that has seen improvement is female representation on board seats, increasing from 18% to 25%. This is likely due to a California law introduced mandating at least one woman sit on every corporate board.
However, this isn’t the full story, because the full story doesn’t have enough data to support it. Much of the reporting continues to focus on directors, occasionally adding department heads. In post production, that’s the editor. Almost all data-gathering focuses on film and television at the highest levels too. (Even so, that’s harrowing as well: women get one shot at directing a bigger film if they’re lucky. And even if that one film does amazingly well and has millions in IP behind it, female directors will still get screwed out of fair pay.) That means shockingly little data on upward movement – PA to assistant to editor, administrative assistant to executive, media manager to colorist – or on exits from this pipeline.
Anecdotally, I’ve observed that there seem to be many women, especially young women, producing video content outside of the big screen and television. In the continually emerging field of virtual production, women appeared to be in the lead early on. A quick search for “Unreal Fellowship” on LinkedIn – a 30-day remote intensive offered by Unreal to allow professionals to learn virtual production from the ground up, along with a $10,000 stipend to assure they can focus on learning – returned results that were roughly 50% women. Organizations like SMPTE and The Academy Software Foundation are taking a more evidence-based approach to improving inclusion too.
In 2018, the concept of an “inclusion rider” hit the mainstream when actor Frances McDormand mentioned it in her Oscars acceptance speech. USC Annenberg’s Dr. Smith first proposed the inclusion rider, a contractual obligation implemented by an A-lister to assure tertiary roles represent the actual setting of the film, a few months after my original article was published. The hope is that this small step can have a domino effect. The backlash to such a simple and reasonable request has been significant, maybe matched only by the vitriol directed at The Academy’s Representation and Inclusion Standards for Oscars Eligibility established in September 2020. (The Academy’s requirements for inclusion are likely already met by nearly every film.)
It looks like the hard numbers aren’t good, and they certainly don’t indicate any real systemic improvement of representation since my original article. This data tells me that the systemic issues that prevent women from being hired and thriving in their careers still exist, and many of those issues are rooted in sexism. And worst of all, it remains publicly acceptable to mock the fight for equality.
How about women who aren’t white?
If there’s one big giant miss in my original piece, it’s my total generalization of all women with no reference to the convergence of different systemic barriers. I’m not going to dive into intersectionality for you in this article because it’s been done better elsewhere, and you should review it separately. The basic idea is that different aspects of your identity intersect and compound to create different experiences of oppression – for example, women experience misogyny, black men experience racism, but black women experience both in a way that is impossible to untangle. Without considering that different women have very different experiences, the root causes of systemic issues cannot be addressed.
Referring back to the numbers analyzed by USC Annenberg, just 1.4% of those female editors were women of color. Among those C-suite executives, only 4 were women of color. If there is little data for women below-the-line, there is even less that breaks down the data to investigate race, class, disability, or gender identity. The few surveys that do exist which broadly examine these groups don’t give any indication of a well-represented or supported community in post production.
One annual anonymous pay rates survey of post production workers in 2020 by Blue Collar Post Collective demonstrated a race-based pay distribution gap favoring white people that nearly doubles from entry-level roles to finishing roles and a significant gender pay gap favoring men in roles such as post producer, editor, colorist, and VFX artist. Combining these two points, the outlook for women of color getting paid and moving up in their careers is particularly grim. This survey is one of the only datasets I could find that presents data on age, gender, race, pay, and role in post production.
Black women in particular face an extreme “double-bind” at work. If they push back on this obvious unfair pay or make a case for their value for promotion, they become an Angry Black Woman. If they’re cooperative and kind, they’re weak and a discredit to their race. All women face the double-bind, but race adds an entirely new dimension to implicit bias.
And yet, instead of trying harder to listen to each other, discussions of “critical race theory”, intersectionality, and other similar topics originally rooted in academia have become weaponized talking points. The political climate in the US in particular has created an environment where concepts meant to stimulate thoughtful introspection, understanding, and curiosity are being treated as divisive and “blame-focused,” with the 45th President of the United States signing an Executive Order banning training on unconscious bias for government workers or for institutions receiving federal grant money. (Thankfully, one of the first actions of President Biden was to reverse this with an order that said, “Because advancing equity requires a systematic approach to embedding fairness in decision-making processes, executive departments and agencies must recognize and work to redress inequities in their policies and programs that serve as barriers to equal opportunity.” Woo hoo, we’re back where we started from!)
Significant (and necessary) social unrest in protest of police brutality toward the Black community in Summer 2020 has demonstrated both immense support and massive division in understanding in the United States. Some companies publicly took a stand with Black Lives Matter this summer (though follow-through has been spotty, to say the least), but the most promising shift for post production workers might be the number of databases emerging to surface Black talent like Black in Post and POC in Audio.
But it always seems to be two steps forward, one step back. Racism in post made headlines in the trades (and the LA Times) in the midst of this unrest when a Facebook request for Black film editors by one individual turned into a string of racist replies declaring the post to be “anti-white racism.” It’s hard to look at how many social media threads take vicious turns and believe there has been significant positive change for non-white women. Because of stopped productions and pandemic-related unemployment, it’ll likely be a few years before we can see if there’s any upward trend in jobs for the Black post production community.
For those who aren’t able-bodied cisgender white women, I don’t have much of a baseline for comparison beyond race. I feel the community is growing stronger and louder, but I also see the US playing politics with trans rights and public figures being openly divisive about pronouns. I see violence and death going unchecked. I also know that when you’re used to seeing no representation of a community, a tiny bit of a shift can feel much bigger than it is in reality (like when men perceive women to be talking in a meeting far more than they actually are, for example.)
Shifting the Workplace
Six years ago, I explored the dynamic of hostile work environments. You’re either objectified or invisible, a slut or a prude. I’ll keep this assessment short: no, this hasn’t improved. If you think it has, go look at the Twitter replies of any semi-visible woman in media.
Of course Twitter isn’t the office where you work, right? Well, it turns out those Twitter users are your male coworkers and they’re pretty pissed about you taking a piece of the pie, especially in the tech industry. (And they don’t like being called out for it.) And if Twitter literally is the office where you work, those things don’t cancel each other out and make a great work environment – I know, disappointing.
Maybe it’s early days, but I’m especially disappointed in the lack of commitment to rethinking the workplace after Covid-19 turned post production (and film and television production in general) completely upside down. In my 2014 article, I talked about how assumptions in the workplace that are based on unconscious bias and stereotypes hinder career progression: she’ll leave if she gets pregnant, she seems distracted, she won’t want more responsibility. I’ve also discussed the amount of household and child-rearing labor working women take on: twice as much, even if they share a household with a partner, and even if they make more money than that partner.
I thought hey look, we have an excuse to change something now! There’s downtime and everything! We had (and to some extent, still have) a great excuse to restructure our approach to work, promote work set-ups that function well for all kinds of people, and offer resources that remove distractions.
For example, this year nearly every parent with a school-age child has had to figure out how to work while also making sure their kid does virtual classwork. Some companies provided stipends and resources to help take the extra labor of childcare off the shoulders of their employees. What if we all did that all the time? What if you hired a creative professional and you actually got 100% of their artistic focus? You’d probably finish more things on time and on budget, and they might even be better quality.
Rethinking work means the assumptions no longer apply, because work works for everyone. Pregnant? Great, congratulations! Distracted? How can we structure your day and give you resources to focus? Oh, you do want more responsibility? I’m glad we made time to speak regularly about your progression! Incredibly, the only shift in thinking for below-the-line workers seems to be a Change.org petition simply demanding a 45-hour-work-week – a low bar when you consider the Motion Picture Editors Guild weekly guarantee is somewhere between 40 and 45 hours, with overtime kicking in after that. Of course this doesn’t mean people in post aren’t working far too many hours (often over 45).
But it does seem to imply that so much needs to change in order to make work environments functional for all kinds of women, that our collective imaginations can’t even get past working “just” 40 hours. The result of this lack of creative thinking during a pandemic has led to thousands of women exiting the workforce in 2020 at a rate 4 times higher than men. In September 2020, over 800,000 women quit their jobs after months of being overwhelmed with domestic labor. By December 2020, all jobs lost in the US were held by women, almost all of them Black women. In a survey by Morning Consult for The New York Times, men reported they shared home-schooling tasks with their partners about 50-50. Women reported they were doing 80% of the work.
Men think they’re doing more housework than they are while also continuing to work successfully, so a large population of American workers see no need to make sweeping changes to work environments. (If men do see the problem, in many cases it doesn’t matter – systemic sexism at work makes it less acceptable for them to step away from meetings to care for a child. Gender bias is bad for everyone – who knew!)
Initially, my assessment of work environments was that passive sexism led to papercut after papercut, which led to women departing. While this continues to be true, I missed the extent to which womens’ exhaustion from trying to fit into a singular workplace model – being cool but not too cool, friendly but not too friendly, available all the time but also a good partner or mother – creates a bubbling stew of malaise, low self-image, and frustration. And the secret ingredient that ties all these loathsome flavors together is sexism.
Engagement by Men – or an utter lack thereof
“Not All Men” was a popular retort in social media six years ago, and one I focused on to express my frustration over the kind of engagement I expected toward my article.
“These statements shift the narrative to one’s self,” I wrote. Let me rephrase that now that I’ve had time to mature as a writer: I’m talking about womens’ lived experiences, why tf are you making it about YOU, bro?
I wrote that these were the most common responses to articles or statements on sexism:
“Thelma Shoonmaker is arguably the most well known editor.”
“I’ve known a number of female editors over the years, and they’ve all been the best cutters I’ve worked with.”
“Women were the original film editors.”
“I work with a lot of women.”
I hate to break it to you, but this hasn’t improved in the slightest. In fact, I’m not sure that Men in General have ever had an original thought among them – if they do, they have some kind of system to loan it around, and the guys who reply to me are still on the waitlist.
However, there is one additional response coming in lately: “That’s terrible, I’m sorry men are like this.” I’m not sure what to do with this one. I’m not going to tell you not to express empathy for womens’ plight, because it’s great to not get called the c-word online for once. But it doesn’t really do much for me, or anyone else in a practical sense. A better response would add some kind of action: “That’s terrible, I’m sorry. I am donating to Time’s Up. I’m pushing for inclusion training at work. I’m joining a diversity committee.”
This isn’t an original thought from me either, but while we’re all repeating things: not all men have harassed women, but all women are impacted by harassers. When you engage in a conversation on sexism, you really need to think if what you’re saying is adding anything useful to the conversation or if it’s unnecessarily defensive. If I say “X% of this post role is women” and you say “well, Y% of my team is women,” I’m really not sure what to say to that. Am I to thank you? Congratulate you? Does it change the fact I stated? Does it help us change the world together?
No, it does not.
The lack of deep critical analysis, productive engagement, and committed discussion over these topics perpetuates an industry that mostly ignores systemic problems in favor of easy wins or easy debate until they’re unignorable (see: Harvey Weinstein). It goes hand-in-hand with mens’ disinterest and over-estimation of their participation at home. It’s masked by mens’ “I don’t want to assert myself” or “I don’t have anything to add” refrains.
But it’s not that, because that’s never stopped them. Look at any forum for post production online and you’ll find a hundred men ready to argue over the best NLE again and again long before they’re ready to sit quietly, listen to women, and ask insightful questions.
And actually, it’s exactly what you think it is a lot more than I would have hoped.
“It makes for a hostile work environment not where women are afraid they’ll be touched the wrong way, but where women must decide if they want to have a child and risk career advancement or freeze their eggs and risk genetic problems….or where women feel like they cannot break out of gender norms without looking like some kind of anomaly.”
I wrote this six years ago, and it was the foundation of my premise: the worst sexism in post production isn’t Madmen-style butt-slapping or sexual quid pro quo but rather the death by a thousand papercuts. And this is where I might have been the most wrong of all.
The #MeToo Movement reached its peak in 2017 and 2018 with a critical mass of women stepping forward to say they too had been sexually harassed, abused, or assaulted by bosses, employers, coworkers, and other men in positions of power. Through this I realized how widespread workplace sexual misconduct really was in post production, including among women I knew. While organizations like Time’s Up sprung up to lend support to women breaking NDAs to seek justice or lobby for legislative changes to protect victims, most of this focus has either been above-the-line or on service workers, mostly leaving women in post production to continue to rely on Whisper Networks while abusers keep on working away.
A landmark event in Abusers Who Get To Keep Working was Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony of sexual assault by Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings in late 2018. Like many women, I hung onto every word of Dr. Ford’s opening statement, looking for vindication in my own life and the lives of my friends. If they believed her, they’d believe us.
She admitted her fear and calmly recalled a horrifying personal experience in a very public setting. Her testimony caused an explosion on social media, with thousands of women feeling empowered to come forward, and many others – myself included – understanding for the first time that the bad experience they had that alway stuck with them was actually truly sexual assault. She explained why it was burned into my brain: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter. The uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.”
But they didn’t believe her, and her reward was death threats, going into hiding, and watching her attacker accept a lifetime appointment to the United States Supreme Court.
Hundreds of deserving men across all industries have had their reckoning, multiple movies capturing the movement (including Bombshell and The Assistant – the former having only men in the roles of director, writer, DP, and editor) have come and gone, many women continue to feel empowered to go public with their abuse. But post production, a business that relies on referrals, reputations, and relationships, seems to be business as usual: questionable comments, being followed to your car, solicited for sex, touched the wrong way a few too many times, yelled at more, paid less, looked up and down, coerced, abused.
In a 2018 op-ed, graphic designer Cassandra Smolcic wrote an essay about how John Lasseter’s outright sexism and sexual harassment set the tone for all of Pixar and ruined her dream job. Lasseter’s termination was a step in the right direction, but it’s hard to look at the environment Smolcic described – of men covering for each other and women being forced into no-win situations – and believe removing one guy can change the culture of an organization.
A younger female colleague of mine attended an industry conference for the first time in the post-Me Too era. She was excited to be a part of career-changing education and networking, so she wore her favorite jacket to a conference event. Instead of learning and growing her network, she was targeted by male long-time attendees who drank too much and followed her around, pestering her with personal questions. A man even put his hands on her shoulders and back without her permission. He grabbed her hand, leaned in close to tell her she was beautiful, and asked to exchange business cards to “get to know each other better.” What sticks with her most was that while this man was invading her personal space, making her wonder if he was about to officially cross a line, no one read her body language and asked if she was okay. She left the conference early and donated the jacket.
In late 2020, years after the peak of #MeToo, TVNZ reported on the culture of sexual harassment and bullying at Weta Digital, including vivid descriptions of an internal porn email newsletter that continued for over 13 years. Men discussed and shared images openly, automatically added employees to the listserv, and even kept written lists on who had slept with who within the company. The female employees who came forward painted the picture of a toxic environment where their complaints (again, of actual pornography in the workplace and on Weta Digital’s servers) were not taken seriously, and they were undermined or even fired.
In December 2020, controversy generated by The New York Times retracting the center of the podcast series Caliphate has redirected attention toward producer Andy Mills that was previously reported in 2018 as part of coverage exploring the culture of sexual harassment and bullying at WNYC. After The Cut published Mills’ own comments (and non-apology) admitting to his sexist behavior, he continued to work for the Times, accept a Peabody Award, and exist as the biggest open secret in New York radio.
The week after Mills had to give that Peabody back for shoddy reporting, he was welcomed to host an episode of the top ten podcast The Daily for NYT – while Caliphate co-producer Rukmani Callimachi was transferred and forced to publicly apologize. This juxtaposition of men-failing-up and women-forced-out has triggered an avalanche of other women deciding to come forward with their own sexist and predatory experiences with Mills, many of which have impacted their careers. Although Mills’ behavior was called out publicly two years ago, his career has continued unhindered – and he is surely not the only one.
Being able to speak up and finding some physical and psychological safety in it is still a new option for many women who have experienced sexism and sexual harassment. Nearly half of the men ousted due to their actions have been replaced by women. It’s too early to tell if this will end up with more inclusive, less disgusting work environments, or if the fears that men will just avoid hiring women will have the bigger impact: in a 2019 study, 27% of men said they now avoided one-on-one meetings with female colleagues.
Sexism in Post Revisited: So everything is bad and I should feel bad?
Not necessarily. Are things getting better? Maybe. It depends on your definition of better.
The reported data isn’t better. The root problems aren’t being solved yet. The societal attitude toward women (and women at work) sucks. In the US, the racial divide has widened due to an incendiary administration, intersecting with gender equality in new and terrible ways. Sexism is casual and systemic, but it’s also overt and immediately physically and mentally dangerous. You probably know a man who has sexually abused a woman, whether that man realized what he was doing was abuse or not.
What IS getting better is our ability to talk about these issues openly, in public or with each other. Not long ago, publishing an article about sexism would raise alarm bells and maybe get your name on some do-not-hire lists. Now it’s a mainstream conversation that those who might have shunned you before are being forced to have if they want to maintain their businesses. The most important side effect of this to me: young women who will understand much earlier than I ever did what is acceptable and what is not, and women will be able to find and support each other.
But that isn’t even close to enough. There is backlash to contend with. There’s disinterest and disengagement. There’s individualism and the empowerment of the small-minded and easily-threatened. We have to focus on changing some very specific things if we want to make the post production industry a sustainable career choice for all kinds of women and all kinds of people.
- Hire women, pay women, promote women.
- Invest in collecting other below-the-line data, inside and outside Hollywood, so we can create useful benchmarks.
- Radically rethink work environments – a rising tide lifts all boats – to provide flexibility and accessibility that addresses many different needs.
- Engage in conversations productively. If you’re a man working in post, understand that you are a keyholder – force other men into conversation. Be present and force yourself into active listening.
- If you’re a man working in post, hold your male peers accountable. Sexist or racist jokes are off-limits. Stop working with known chauvinists or abusers.
- If you’re a man working from home with a female partner in post, look at how much domestic labor you’re doing and compare notes. Then do a lot more than you think is fair.
- Create inclusion working groups at your company and make sure it’s not just run by the underrepresented communities. Force employers to put real money toward these and create actionable goals.
- And make one of those goals bringing “inclusion” into all the main conversations: planning, compensation, employment, budgets, promotions. When diversity is a separate conversation, it can be deprioritized. It needs to be part of the fabric of an organization’s culture.
- Don’t separate women into their own panel at a conference. Put them on the main stage.
- Meet women in the industry you don’t know before you have any jobs to fill.
- Hire women, pay women, promote women.
This isn’t hopeless. People can grow and change and learn new things. In reviewing my article after six years, it was surprising how much I had too. I’m a better person, colleague, worker, and friend for having committed to curiosity and learning. There is always room for improvement. And what we do and say won’t always be right. When we try our best and seek to understand more than be understood, we’ll keep each other accountable.
Why does this matter? Why does it matter if post production isn’t improving so long as all the TV shows and movies get finished?
Three reasons. First, just because there are enough qualified staff to work in post now doesn’t mean there will be in the future. Cultivating talent is vital.
Second, diverse teams tell better stories. Stories that represent the community more realistically perform better. Stories that perform better make more money which can be invested in the next story, which will continue to hire post production workers.
And third, because there are women with a fury of passion for post production, with innate talents and skills and expertise. I think I heard a saying once about a woman scorned, might have heard it in a movie once.