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Looking for Equality at the Oscars

In search of more female nominees in all Academy Awards categories

Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell have made history for women at the Oscars. For the first time in its 93-year existence, the Academy has awarded the first woman of color for Best Director and Best Picture for Nomadland, and a woman for Best Original Screenplay for Promising Young Woman. Newspapers are clamoring with headlines about this historic achievement, and many industry insiders say this brings us so much closer to parity in the industry.

Do you hear crickets? I do.

I’m here to throw some cold water on that so-called buzz and bring a reality check to this (not so) groundbreaking news.

The Academy Awards were first presented in 1929, and they honored films from 1927 and 1928. Five men and no women were nominated for Best Director that year. Certainly, one would imagine, this inequity would change in the coming years. It did not.

In 1953, the Academy Awards were first televised in the United States. Again, five men and no women were nominated. But surely, with the arrival of the 1960s counterculture movement, Oscar would shine her light on a woman, any woman. No, it wasn’t until 1977 that the first woman even got nominated for Best Director–Lina Wertmüller for Seven Beauties. Seventeen years later, Jane Campion became the second woman nominated for Best Director for The Piano. Not until 2010 would a woman, Kathryn Bigelow, win Best Director for the film The Hurt Locker.

No other women have ever won Best Director at the most prestigious awards in film. But, wait! This year, 2021, two women have been nominated, with Zhao taking home the Oscar for Best Director. So, should we be celebrating like there’s no tomorrow? I don’t think so.

Don’t get me wrong. I am very happy for the recognition these women received, but the history speaks volumes and makes me nervous about the future of the film industry. To further explore the state of women in media, I turned to Tema Staig, executive director of Women In Media, a non-profit that promotes gender balance in the film and entertainment industries.

Tema L. Staig portraitThank you so much for joining us, and let’s get to the big headline. Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennel have made Oscar history with their nominations for Nomadland and Promising Young Woman. Is this true tangible progress?

Yes, this is a tangible advancement. I’m very happy that they got nominated. I think it’s wonderful, and they deserve it. True, some of the older bastions of the film industry are still begrudgingly moving forward. Also, I think there were other women this year who deserved nominations and in a number of different departments. The fact that One Night in Miami didn’t get the love it deserved is outrageous; that it didn’t get a best director (Regina King) or best cinematographer (Tami Reiker, ASC) is heinous.

And no women were nominated for Best Cinematographer either?

Yes, and I don’t think there’s really a good excuse for it. I mean, Mandy Walker did an incredible job of cinematography on Mulan. I think she deserved a nod, and as I mentioned, I think Tami Reiker for One Night in Miami was fantastic.  Both of them are ASC members who deserved that recognition.

The Celluloid Ceiling has tracked women’s employment on top-grossing films for decades. According to its annual report, women accounted for just 16 percent of directors working on the 100 highest-grossing films in 2020. 

Yes, it rose from only 4 percent in 2018 to 12 percent in 2019 and now 16 percent. No, it’s not enough. There’s a lot of things that we need to fix in the industry. For real change, we must have parity and equality.

And what does that look like to you?

I think anybody who feels that we shouldn’t be between 40 percent and 60 percent women directors, and for that matter women in every department, is a dinosaur. They need to rethink themselves and move on with the times. Also, because the film business is the arbiter of culture, if we can change the film industry, then other sectors, such as tech, will follow suit.

Your organization, Women in Media, has a lot of programs and events to help the industry reach parity. Could you tell us about a few?

So, we have a multi-pronged approach. First, we have the Women In Media Crew List, which is a pipeline for all those who want women in their crew. Here, employers can find female-identifying talent for what we refer to as both above-the-line and below-the-line positions. Above the line are the directors, the writers, the producers. Below the line is the crew, meaning everybody in the camera department, the art department, the grips, electrics, PAs…everybody else, the rest of us. We also host Hire These Women lunches, where we take people to lunch with department heads. For example, a department head, Alan Caso, who is a very busy cinematographer, was looking for specific people to fill out his crew. He needed a Steadicam operator, a camera operator and a few other positions. So, we send out an invitation to members, who are then vetted to ensure that they were qualified for the positions he needed to fill. We then have lunch with him so he can get to know them as people and give him a contact sheet with their crew list profile links. I am proud to say, in that instance, Alan Caso brought a number of our members into his camera department to work on the TV series The Rookie and also Roswell, New Mexico. We’ve had lunches as big as 30 people and as small as two.

You really are putting women into the landscape. Now, how about pay disparity?

Yes, we held a pay-equity summit. A few years ago, we did one with Local 871, which is a union comprised of script supervisors, coordinators, accountants and allied production specialists. At the meeting, we discussed and shaped solutions for glaring pay equity gaps in the entertainment business.

You do such incredible work. If someone wants to help or join the cause, what would you suggest they do to have an impact?

I would suggest everybody has to change how they think. I mean everybody, even the people who are doing awesome work right now. We all need to take stock every once in a while and say, “Maybe I should widen my pool of friends.” Ask yourself, “If I don’t know enough women, LGBTQ+ and people of color, maybe I should figure out how to get to know more?” Sometimes people are more than willing; they just don’t have the tools to make the change. We can certainly help. We have all kinds of events that they can come to and get to know people. They can use our crew list. The good news is that studios, organizations and department heads are moving in this regard, and they are looking to us for parity solutions. We think this is very wise, and we applaud those who have asked for our help.

We all benefit when we have a more inclusive work environment. Welcome women and women of color, the LGBTQ+ community, our trans girlfriends and our non-binary friends into your productions, and you’ll find the more inclusive you are, the more perspectives you get–the more choices. I mean, doesn’t it make sense to avail oneself of more choices, varied perspectives, world view, and thought leadership? The viewing public and our industry deserve nothing less.

For more information on Women in Media, visit



Written By

Lauren Flick is a writer, producer and director who has worked for such notable networks as NBC, CBS, A&E and AMC. Her articles on feminism, environmental causes and social justice are frequently featured on CNBC’s digital platform. Driven by a passion for politics and human rights, she actively contributes content to many political organizations and campaigns. A native New Yorker, Lauren loves telling a good story, thrives on social activism and can't resist playing with any dog she meets.


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