09/22/2011 02:00 pm ET Updated Nov 22, 2011

Tearing Down the Celluloid Ceiling

I frequently write about women and girls in the Chicago area -- the barriers they face and their solutions to improve their lives and communities. Some of those same issues are reflected in the disparities rampant in Hollywood.

For example, take activist and actress America Ferrera (who's speaking at Chicago Foundation for Women's 26th Annual Luncheon on October 3). Ferrera's career illustrates what Hollywood and Chicago have in common: when women are leaders, great things happen -- but women don't get to lead nearly often enough.

America Ferrera is renowned for portraying bold characters in television and film, and unsurprisingly this frequently involves women behind the scenes. For example, Salma Hayek was an executive producer of Ugly Betty, and Ferrera's breakthrough came in Real Woman Have Curves, directed and co-written by women.

Simply put, Hollywood has a "celluloid ceiling." Of the 250 top-grossing films in 2009, women were only 8% of writers, 2% of cinematographers and 7% of directors, research shows. It took until 2010 for Kathryn Bigelow to become the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director for The Hurt Locker. Women have been directing since the silent film era, so it's not for lack of women's interest or ability.

This year's breakout summer hit film, Bridesmaids, was an R-rated comedy written by and starring women. The media made sure to point out that its success ($168 million domestically and counting) was a fluke. In just the opening paragraph of one L.A. Times article, we're told that the "all-girl" ensemble in Bridesmaids has "cast a... spell" over "cutthroat" Hollywood women who promoted the film instead of acting like catty "rivals" -- which gives Tinseltown women no credit for praising a story that audiences proved they were hungry to see.

Family entertainment is likewise lacking in gender parity. According to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media, women directed only 7% of animated films made from 2006 to 2009. Family films only have one female character for every three male characters. In fact Pixar's next animated feature, Brave, will be the studio's first in 25 years with a female lead character.

Diversity among women is also a big issue. Some women of color are making their own way, such as Issa Rae, the star and driving force behind the web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl and Friends. reports that Rae set up a Kickstarter so fans could help her raise $30,000 for the series, a goal she met and nearly doubled. (This is likewise how CFW's own Mary Morten supported her documentary Woke Up Black.)

How do we go about changing this? Chicago has some excellent homegrown solutions: Beyondmedia Education empowers young women to tell their stories using multimedia tools; Voces Primeras distributes documentary-style features of pioneering Latinas; and the Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media at Columbia College Chicago engages in research, offers fellowships for creative and scholarly endeavors, and hosts exhibitions and panel discussions.

As women we can also use our consumer power to impact Hollywood. The more public support and accolades we give to high quality women-led projects -- from Hollywood films to local advocacy efforts -- the bigger the difference we'll see among the next generation's attitudes about what women can and can't do.