Behind the Silver Screen: Women’s Work in the Film Industry

“If there’s specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore it as an obstacle for two reasons: I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies” – Kathryn Bigelow, director of The Hurt Locker.

Kathryn Bigelow

Kathryn Bigelow 

From the claims Sony paid Jennifer Lawrence less than her male co-stars for the hunger games, research that shows female characters speak far less than their male counterparts in a lot of Disney films, to the discussion over the fairness of the Bechdel test, there is growing awareness about how women are under-represented (or badly represented!) and under-valued in the film industry.

However, the gendered debate in film goes further than the characters we see on our screens. Inspired by papers given at WWV conferences, an insightful talk given by the Leeds based Feminist Archives, Feminist Futures, and my involvement in a Women’s Home Cinema Club that dedicates a night a month to watching and discussing films made by female directors, I have recently become increasingly aware of the challenges women face working behind the screen as well.

Considering the history of the film industry, there has been a significant improvement in recent years. Sharon Hooper, a senior lecturer in Visual Communication at Leeds College of Art, told me that 40 years ago, women were assumed to only be able to work in typically ‘female’ roles such as costume and make-up. Many film sets would not even have female bathrooms. In response, in the 1970s, feminist scholars such as Laura Mulvey started writing about the impact of who was making films on what we see on screen. [1] She claimed that the male dominated industry was producing film from the perspective of the ‘male gaze’, which often presented female characters as merely love interests or sexual objects.

Although this perspective has since been nuanced by scholars and challenged by some film makers, Sharon Hooper still believes there is a link between the under-representation of women in key roles behind the screen and what we end up seeing on it. She commented on the lack of positive female characters for children: “The lack of involvement in decision-making and creative roles in media production in general has to have some bearing on the poor representation of women and girls. Prescribed gender assumptions creeps in early and are hard to combat.”

The statistics demonstrate that women are still massively under-represented in the industry. In this years ‘Celluloid Ceiling’ report, Martha M. Lauzen found that in 2015 in the US “women comprised 19% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films.” [2] There are many other statistics that show a worrying lack of women in these creative industries.

As with all issues of this kind, there is no definitive answer as to why we see these discrepancies. Kathi Kamleitner, a Film and TV Studies PhD student at the University of Glasgow, pointed out the importance of looking at where it is that women are dropping out of the system. Almost half of the graduates from film school are women, yet there is still a huge disparity in women working as directors, producers and writers in mainstream filmmaking.

The factors preventing women from entering these fields often include difficulty in getting funding and a lack of confidence in women directing films, particularly within certain genres, like action movies. Kathi noted that women directors are more prominent in experimental and short films, comedy and documentaries and speculates this could be because these are cheaper films to produce and because women are more likely to make issue-based films, which are often documentaries. Looking at the paths taken by recent Leeds graduates, Sharon Hooper agrees that it seems to be more acceptable for women to direct and produce artists films, but it is harder to make a living in this field.

It is clear that, as a society, we still have gendered assumptions about the areas in which women are likely to work, within the film industry and elsewhere. Director Liza Johnson has spoken about how people have often assumed a man was the director, rather than her. This seems to be consistent throughout the industry; I spoke to a woman working as a technician, filming interviews with Gaelic speakers, who said most people assume she will be doing the interviews and the man she works with must be the one behind the camera.

Another important consideration is how women’s work is valued within the film industry. The concept of the director as the auteur, the artist/author behind a film, ignores the collaborative nature of film production. Kathi highlighted that this is problematic when considering women’s representation in the industry: “We mainly speak about female directors not getting enough spotlight and some women’s film festivals only accept films directed by women. How ironic is it that these festivals want to empower female filmmakers by giving them a platform to show their films, and at the same time they ignore women working on other creative roles – and by that under-value women’s work as cinematographers, editors, writers etc.”

Within the film industry, the drive to increase women’s representation is becoming more visible. Festivals such as Sundance and the Edinburgh International Film Festival are including higher number of films made by women. Places like the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds are dedicated to showing less mainstream films, which are more likely to be made by women and the wider issue of diversity in film has been publicly highlighted recently in the criticism of the ‘whitewashing’ of the Oscars.

An LA based group, Women in Film, have pledged to watch 52 films directed by women, one a week for a year. Have a look at their suggestions and start bringing female film makers into mainstream culture, while enjoying some interesting films made by awesome women!

Kate Whitaker

Women, Work and Value Intern at the University of Glasgow



[1] Mulvey, Laura, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Screen vol. 16, (1975)

[2] Lauzen, Martha M., ‘The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 100, 250, and 500 Films of 2015’,   Women in Film and TV, [accessed 3 June 2016]