TechCrunch posted an article by VFX artists Sonya Teich and Raqi Syed entitled Visual Effects: The Gender Bias Behind The Screen.
The authors present a case that the reason for the low participation rate of women in the visual effects industry and the lack of discussion for this disparity is due to a culture of sexism and gender discrimination within the industry. The evidence presented in the article to support this claim are examples involving the use of “booth babes” by some companies at Siggraph, a porn mailing list at an unlisted company (I assume this is ESC Entertainment which went out of business over 10 years ago but some are saying this is Weta Digital?!), and a jest by a director who started his career as a VFX artist. To resolve the gender disparity, the authors propose the VFX industry begin to report data on female participation rates, change hiring and evaluation practices, and institute a quota system advocated by actress Geena Davis that would add hundreds of women incrementally to close the gender gap over a 4 year period.
Teich and Syed seemingly glanced over an important fact: While the participation rates of females are low in the actual technical creation of visual effects, generally speaking participation rates are quite high in corporate, administrative, financial, and production roles at visual effects companies. Many recruiters and producers are women and intimately involved in the crewing of VFX personal. If the authors’ claim of discrimination are true, why then would a large number of females involved in the crewing process effectively discriminate against other women?
Is there a discriminatory bias in the visual effects industry or is there something more subtle going on?
A few months ago I engaged in a conversation about this issue with a leading female producer. She disagreed that there was a bias against women in the industry and that the reason for gender disparity in technical creation of VFX is basically preference. That seem to be reiterated in studies on gender values concerning work:
In general, Rosenbloom’s study found, men and women who enjoyed the explicit manipulation of tools or machines were more likely to choose IT careers – and it was mostly men who scored high in this area. Meanwhile, people who enjoyed working with others were less likely to choose IT careers. Women, on average, were more likely to score high in this arena.
In another study:
Math-precocious men were much more likely to go into engineering or physical sciences than women. Math-precocious women, by contrast, were more likely to go into careers in medicine, biological sciences, humanities, and social sciences. Both sexes scored high on the math SAT, and the data showed the women weren’t discouraged from certain career paths.
The survey data showed a notable disparity on one point: That men, relative to women, prefer to work with inorganic materials; women, in general, prefer to work with organic or living things. This gender disparity was apparent very early in life, and it continued to hold steady over the course of the participants’ careers.
The authors’ proposal on solutions is also flawed. A few women on twitter who worked in VFX actually argued that a quota system would hurt their careers and wanted to be chosen for the job for the same reason many of us do: based on merit. Another issue is that even if a quota system was accepted, how would it be adopted? Most likely such a system would have to be mandated from the top by the big 6 studios who choose which VFX vendors get the work. One of those key decision-makers at the top is Marvel’s Victoria Alonso who I pointed out would take no course of action on the issue which the authors gave a pass to. “What leverage do you have?” is how the industry works, not by the fairness preached on podiums.
Lastly, I was severely disappointed in the authors tacit insinuation that this blog dismissed the discourse on gender. I’ve written about the issue amongst others as far back as four years ago. I also helped uncover pregnancy discrimination at LucasFilm, a company run by Kathleen Kennedy, a leading woman in the industry. What I discovered is that while the US has strong laws that allow people to sue for pregnancy discrimination and sexual harassment, countries where VFX work has been going don’t. “It’s a gloooobal industry!” as many proudly say.
I don’t delve too much into my personal bio on this blog but as a minority who grew up in a pretty bad part of LA and had various odds stacked against me, I’ve been grateful to have worked in the industry. While I was aware of the low rates of minorities in the industry, I never came to the conclusion that there was a racial bias in the industry. In fact, I consider VFX to be one of the most egalitarian institutions I have experienced. Unfortunately it is my observation that this latest piece suffers a similar fate as a recent post on MPC artists:
No actionable solutions, and a one way ticket for a ride in an industry on a highway to hell.