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Joan Williams

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And the Oscar Goes to... a Man: Gender Bias at the Top

Posted: 01/27/2012 11:35 am

The Academy Award nominees came out on Tuesday, and to no one's surprise, this was not a good year for women in Hollywood. As they have been for the Oscars' 83-year history, the (non-gendered) prestige categories -- Best Picture and Best Director -- were dominated by men. Of the producers for Best Picture nominees currently on the Academy Award website, 14 are men, and three are women. All of the Best Picture nominees are directed by men. So is everyone nominated for a Best Director award. It looks like Kathryn Bigelow, who won for The Hurt Locker in 2009, is going to remain the only woman to ever win Best Director -- at least for another year.

Aside from a few rumblings on Twitter and feminist blogs, no one batted an eye at this gender ratio. After all, why should they? This is par for the course in Hollywood, where according to research from the Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television, last year only 5 percent of the directors of the top 250 domestic grossing films were women -- and only 18 percent of directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors.

Progress is slow, and it takes a long time for the effects of change to filter up to the highest levels. We get that. But according to the same research as above, 10 years ago, there were two times as many women directing the top 250 domestic grossing films as there are today. Representation among the group of directors, executive producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors has grown -- by 1 percent.

Americans these days seem to have this idea that men and women have achieved equality -- or even that women are taking over. The myth of the meritocracy reigns supreme. But the top of the top is still dominated by men, in Hollywood and elsewhere -- and what's worse, progress may be stalling across the board. Only 18 CEOs in the Fortune 500 are women -- and 482 men. Seventeen of 100 United States Senators are women, and 73 of 435 Representatives.

So why does this matter? After all, it's just at the top of the top. Women make up only 15 percent of equity partners at law firms, a ratio that's been static for over a decade. But they're some 47 percent of entering associates, so it's not like they're not getting a chance. Should it be society's problem that they just can't cut it?

The answer is yes, it matters, because it's the top. Even in the face of the best intentions in the world, there are a whole series of cognitive and social factors contributing to inertia when it comes to gender ratios for the most prestigious and influential jobs. When faced with a high-stakes hiring decision, people tend to choose others who are similar to themselves, so the heavily male ratio at the top is self-reinforcing. This phenomenon, called in-group favoritism, doesn't so much reflect bias against women as it does bias in favor of men. In-group favoritism helps account for how women get sloughed away on the way to the top -- as appointments become higher-stakes and more subjective, people stick closer to what's known.

After all, if you were hiring a director for a big Hollywood movie, who would you choose? The established director with a proven track record and the seal of approval of successful buddies, or the outsider who looks completely different from what you've come to associate with the image of a director? There's a lot of money wagered on these movies. It's no wonder people tend to go with the safe choice.

But just because a decision is rational doesn't mean it's how things should be. Things aren't going to change just because we give women a chance to compete. We need to recognize the obstacles women face and actively help them to overcome them. Either that or build Bigelow a nice private island somewhere, because she's going to be alone for a long time.

co-written with Rachel Dempsey

 

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