Hollywood just admitted it has a problem — and it’s one we’ve seen many times before.
Over two days in October, some of the biggest players in Hollywood held a secret meeting in Los Angeles to address the gender bias that’s plaguing the industry, as Deadline reported.
According to studies commissioned by the Sundance Institute and Women In Film Los Angeles and conducted by a research team at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School, only 1.9% of the directors of the 100 top-grossing films of 2013 and 2014 were women.
“The qualitative analysis indicates that when industry leaders think director, they think male,” noted Dr. Katherine Pieper, one of the study’s authors. “Implicit biases like this are consistent with research on gender and leadership and may narrow opportunities for women behind the camera.”
As a result of this research, the American Civil Liberties Union called in May for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to investigate what it called a “systemic failure to hire women directors in violation of Title VII at all levels of the film and television industry.” The EEOC began contacting female directors to investigate Hollywood’s alleged gender discrimination in October, the Los Angeles Times reports.
This disparity doesn’t just apply to female directors; it can affect every role, from film and TV leads to writers and show creators, the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles finds. Women in Hollywood are underrepresented on nearly every front, the report notes.
During October’s secret Hollywood meeting, leaders pointed to unconscious bias as a major culprit for the industry’s gender disparity and set a plan in motion to tackle it.
We’ve all got hidden biases
Thanks to more than 30 years of research on the topic, we know that we’re all at least a little bit biased. If you don’t believe this, there are a number of hidden bias tests out there that can confirm this unfortunate reality for you — most notably Harvard, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington’s Implicit Association Tests.
Unconscious bias is, as one researcher referred to it, an “equal opportunity virus” that everyone possesses, regardless of his or her own group membership. It’s the pervasive, hidden, and deep-set attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious and involuntary way.
These biases could stem from a number of places, including our upbringing, education, the generation we were born in, and our families, explains Ruchika Tulshyan, author of “The Diversity Advantage:
Fixing Gender Inequality In the Workplace.“
“Even when people seem to be very collaborative and open to diversity, each one of us have these hidden biases and are in a way a little bit sexist and a little bit racist,” she tells Business Insider.
This becomes problematic in the workplace when people making decisions like hiring and promoting are operating from a place of unconscious bias. This bias can hinder how inclusive a workplace is to different people and ideas.
Diversity in the workplace is an important issue, especially considering the decades of research that finds being around people who are different from us makes us more creative, leads to better decision-making and problem-solving, and can improve a business’s bottom line.
And it doesn’t just affect Hollywood.
Last year Facebook reported women made up 31% of the entire workforce while men accounted for 69%. Yahoo reported last year that 37% of its employees were female while 62% were male. At Google, 30% of workers were female while 70% were male. And despite committing to diversity goals last year, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella reported at a shareholder’s meeting earlier this year its 71/29 ratio of male to female workers actually got worse.
As a way to remove barriers and to help female filmmakers move up the industry ladder, some of Hollywood’s leaders proposed an action plan that includes instituting unconscious-bias training across the industry.
Women in Film’s executive director Kirsten Schaffer tells Business Insider the training would be led by an educator that will be determined by the end of the first quarter of 2016. While the organisation thinks everyone in Hollywood would benefit from the training, they are specifically interested in training executives who make hiring decisions and writers or directors who create characters for women, she says.
A way to rid ourselves of biases?
Google and Facebook are perhaps the most recognisable companies that have begun implementing unconscious-bias training.
Brian Welle, a Google staff scientist who researches unconscious bias, told The New York Times last year that it is possible to overcome our hidden preferences if we make ourselves confront them and the role they play in our decision-making.
But not everyone is convinced unconscious-bias training is the way to go, or at least not the only way to go.
Francesca Gino, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, points to various research she says shows that diversity training alone won’t end the biases in organisations.
While unconscious-bias training differs from company to company, generally the idea across the board is to raise awareness about the prevalence of unconscious bias and relate it to the work people are actually doing, says Joelle Emerson, founder and CEO of Paradigm, a consulting firm that works with tech and other companies to develop and execute effective diversity strategies.
“I think a lot of trainings are either too academic or not focused around schemas that make sense to people,” Emerson says, noting another problem arises when training doesn’t go beyond awareness-raising and include action-planning.
“My concern always is, if people go to a training and it enables them to check a mental box, you could actually see counterproductive results,” she says.
Before any organisation conducts training, Tulshyan says it’s important for them to figure out metrics like how many women make it through the interview process, how many women get hired, if there’s a gender-pay gap, and how they select who gets promoted to determine the biggest drop-off points for women.
Emerson structures her training around different drop-off points. A group might, for example, look specifically at the recruiting process, at what point during the process unconscious bias might come into play and affect hiring decisions, and what hiring managers can do about it.
She says she uses a combination of social-science research to suggest solutions — like writing down the reason for a hiring decision, which has been found to make decisions more objective — and brainstorming with participants on what would make the most sense and applying that to their specific context.
“The training is structured around these workplace decisions and workplace contexts so that it’s really relevant, and within each of those we’re giving actions that they can take,” she says.
Emerson notes there’s a fine line between making people feel bad about themselves and their biases — which leads to defensiveness and has been found to actually backfire — and suggesting bias is acceptable by normalizing it too much. Effective training programs are able to walk this line.
Another important step Gino notes is stressing the consequences of bias. She and other researchers found that when we realise our behaviour negatively affected others, we’re more concerned about fixing our actions.
Training should extend beyond senior managers and others right at the top, Tulshyan says. “A lot of the issues really start at the bottom as well.”
Though Emerson says in an ideal world everyone would receive training, at the very least those making “people” decisions, like hiring and promotions, should go through training.
“I would want to be really clear it’s by no means a silver bullet,” Emerson tells Business Insider. “I think what it’s really good for is acting as a first step to broader change.”
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