Representation Matters: NYWIFT at Women’s Media Summit

Earlier this month, I attended the Women’s Media Summit in Provincetown, MA. 102 women from around the country met to develop pragmatic and non-partisan solutions to the systemic gender discrimination that infects every level of the media and entertainment industry. You can read more about it here in Huffington Post (below is an extended excerpt).

On March 27, 2017, women’s rights in the workplace were threatened when the current administration revoked the 2014 Fair Pay and Safe Workplace executive order. The rollback repeals protections meant to create more equitable work environments for women including prevention of discrimination and ensuring equal pay.  This administration’s hostile trajectory of federal policies towards women deals a significant blow to civil rights that has many alarmed.

At the same time, 102 women were converging on Provincetown, MA for the inaugural Women’s Media Summit. They tasked themselves with developing pragmatic and non-partisan solutions to the systemic gender discrimination that infects every level of the media and entertainment industry. The goal of the Women’s Media Summit was to develop a “White Paper” of tools and actionable strategies with benchmarks “to create an immediate shift toward gender equality among American storytellers.” Although the conference had been planned months in advance, its timing was now infused with a sense of urgency.

With that, on the tip of Cape Cod at the beginning of a rainy weekend in April, industry leaders and organizers across disciplines acknowledged that gender discrimination is not just a moral and legal imperative – it is a human rights issue. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.”

And yet, according to a new report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, the number of women directing the top 250 movies in 2016 actually decreased to 7 percent, a decline of two percentage points from the previous year. Additionally, women account for only 13 percent of writers, 17 percent of executive producers, 24 percent of producers, 17 percent of editors, and 5 percent of cinematographers.

As further proof of systemic gender discrimination, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is currently in settlement talks with the major Hollywood studios. The talks focus on unfair hiring practices. While the EEOC cannot comment on the details, it has been widely reported that after an investigation beginning in October 2015, the EEOC found that every studio engaged in discriminatory hiring practices against female directors.

This is an issue that each generation believes she has discovered for the first time, or as New York Women in Film and Television (NYWIFT) president, Alexis Alexanian, refers to it: the “new old issue.”

The ramifications of gender discrimination are not just financial. Film, television and other media are our biggest exports. This is how we learn about ourselves and other cultures. Media representation is crucial when it comes to societal change. “There must be a recognition of the importance of women contributing to our cultural narrative and its enormous impact to our economy and society,” says NYWIFT board member Simone Pero. Repeated exposure to gender stereotypes crafted by predominantly male voices conditions an audience to implicit bias.  If women are shut out of the story telling process, then they are not in control of their own narrative.

Consider the film Hidden Figures.  Taraji P. Henson plays NASA math genius Katherine Johnson who works in a building where there are no bathrooms for black women. She must run across campus through the rain to use the “colored” bathroom until her boss portrayed by Kevin Costner saves the day by tearing down the sign and making a speech about the evils of segregation. But that it didn’t happen. Vice news reports that in real life, Johnson decided to use the “white” bathroom on her own. By characterizing Costner as the white male savior, it diminishes Johnson’s actions and takes away her power. It sets up the man as the hero for the woman. Now imagine the scene where she is the hero of her own story, deliberately marching into the white bathroom as the real Johnson had done 50 years earlier.

Though not an organizer of the event, NYWIFT showed up enforce with five board members, including Alexanian as well as executive director, Terry Lawler. For 40 years, NYWIFT has been the preeminent entertainment industry association for women in New York, providing training and professional development, and advocating for equality for over 2,000 of its members who work in all aspects of the industry.

Many ideas were developed over the weekend. Pero explains, “Concrete proposals were made to tackle issues like state-level production-related tax credits linked to gender diversity and parity; women’s access to financing; equitable hiring practices; addressing film school disparities, and launching a full on public awareness campaign to get people, audiences, notables outside the industry engaged in the issue.”

In the coming months, the organizers will distill these ideas into the White Paper. In the meantime, what you can do? Understand your power at the box office, and support films and projects by women.  If you work in the business, hire qualified women. Be inclusive; economy of diversity is good for business. Find a mentor. Be a mentor. As Summit guest speaker Alysia Reiner of Orange is the New Black said, “When we do it, we show others it’s possible.” Be a champion. And if you have ideas about how to move the needle towards gender equity, we invite you to share them with NYWIFT.


  1. I suppose there is a silver lining to the 2016 election; it got people talking about gender equality again. I’m an “old” feminist (57) and I have been frequently disappointed to hear younger women speak as if the work is done and reject the label “feminist.” Kudos to you for your good work, Kathryn! I will continue to wield power with my pocketbook!

    • busyk said:

      Thank you, Michele. Here’s to chipping away at the system, one essay at a time!

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