Women in the Sector: Natalie Miller panel keeps issues on the agenda
The following article was published by Screen Hub on Monday 2 September, 2013.
Tara Judah, writer, film tragic and campaigning exhibitor with strong community tendencies, is well placed to hit the accelerator on the shabby numbers detailing the role of women in the screen sector. A Melbourne panel provided the opportunity.
Established in 2011, The Natalie Miller Fellowship awards up to $10,000 to a woman “who has demonstrated initiative, entrepreneurship and excellence working in the Australian screen industries.” The fellowship also recently held a valuable and significant Q&A panel at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. The panel, titled ‘Woman on Top: Leadership, Women & the whole damn thing!’
Natalie Miller (OAM AO) is a name – if not a person – everyone working in the screen industries knows. Along with co-founding Melbourne’s Cinema Nova, Natalie is the only woman in Australia who has established and runs a distribution company, Sharmill Films. Without listing all of Natalie’s achievements (that is practically an article in and of itself), let’s just say she is a clear frontrunner and leader in screen industries – the kind of leader young women need.
The reason why is neatly illustrated by a pair of recent articles. In late July Film Ink published its power list of the 20 Most Powerful People in Australian Film. Twitter lit up like a Christmas tree, first with questions and later with complaints. Where were all the women? Only two in a list of twenty names?
In response, Australian ex-pat Glenn Dunks wrote How Do You Solve a Problem Like Gender Equality? for Indiewire, containing a list of twenty five Australian women in film whose achievements deserve recognition. Clearly there isn’t a complete absence of women working in screen industries. Still, was it difficult for Film Ink to come up with a list of names because there are fewer women overall or because women don’t get recognition? And if it’s the latter, are women receiving less recognition because they don’t promote themselves or because the limelight ignores them?
The issues and answers came through clearly in the panel discussion. The lineup was impressive, and it is worth quoting their affiliations in full – Ms Carol Schwartz AM, entrepreneur, business woman and advisor to the Federal Government on gender diversity; Ms Jenni Tosi, CEO of Film Victoria, advisory committee for the VCA, RMIT, Deakin University and Ausfilm Board; Ms Anna McLeish, producer of Snowtown and co-director of Warp Films; and Ms Rachel Okine, General Manager of Hopscotch Features and Acquisitions Executive at Hopscotch Entertainment One, and the inaugural winner of the fellowship, recently returned from the Women’s Leadership Forum at the Harvard Business School. ABC 774’s Raphael Epstein moderated the panel.
The first and most interesting exercise of the evening was when the women each introduced themselves. Carol Schwartz was confident but Jenni Tosi down-played her achievements saying she “sort of fell into it” – which Schwartz quickly picked up on, reminding Tosi that she was clearly qualified for the role and deserved to be the CEO. Anna McLeish gave a trajectory of achievement rather than a statement and Rachel Okine, clearly having learnt a thing or two from her forum at Harvard, stated clearly and confidently her position and achievements to date. Tosi and McLeish also mentioned that they were mothers. I immediately wondered if on a panel of four successful men, the word ‘father’ would be mentioned. I suspect not, but the inference of course is that it’s much more difficult for women to balance their home and working lives.
According to Schwartz the percentage of women in leadership roles in the corporate world is “pretty pathetic” and in terms of rectifying the gender balance we’re moving “at a glacial pace”. The recent ‘backstabbing’ of Australia’s first PM, Julia Gillard, also came up on more than one occasion. Clearly any underrepresentation in the screen industries is the symptom of a broader cultural problem. We don’t have enough women in prominent roles in our society – period. The reason this is a problem, Schwartz elaborated, is because “you can’t be what you can’t see.” Schwartz believes the answer lies in mandatory quotas, in all industries and sectors. If a woman is walking in to a board of directors to present or pitch an idea, then she shouldn’t always be facing a wall of men. Bringing this problem back to screen industries, it extends to financing and funding issues. Jenni Tosi continued the conversation Schwartz started by agreeing that if you’re a female seeking funding, you’re pretty much always pitching to men.
Tosi also voiced what we are all already aware of, “The industry’s very much relationship driven. It’s who you know.” Well if it starts off as a boys club then it’s going to be a lot like primary school where only the occasional, gutsy tomboy gets in. Do we really have to throw stones for a fair opportunity? She also said that whilst there are lots of women working in production in various roles from wardrobe to script supervisor and producer there are still fewer female writers, directors and DPs. Apparently if you’re a male focus puller then operating Camera B is more likely than if you’re a female focus puller with the same aspiration and even the same talent for cinematography.
Rachel Okine surmised the issue succinctly and aptly, “there’s a constant feeling that you have to do everything twice as well and work twice as hard to get half as far.” Perhaps this is the reason why so many women suffer from “imposter syndrome”, another issue Okine was keen to tell the room full of mostly female hopefuls, you simply have to overcome with perseverance. From Tosi, Okine and McLeish there was definitely a message of working hard, staying focused and using perseverance to overcome the ‘hurdles’ of gender inequality.
Schwartz however took a far more hard lined approach saying that the answer was mandatory quotas. 15-16%, she said, was tokenism and the increase was so tiny that if we continue to make such slight glacial progress we’re going to get nowhere.
When the Q&A opened up to the floor, Natalie Miller was the first to speak. Surrounded by talented women (the room was full of women working in distribution, exhibition, production and education), Natalie was keen to point out that when she started in this industry she was always entering a room full of men. Even now she is the only woman in the top ranks of distribution. The problem, she said, was still rampant in the corporate world.
Having attended the Australian International Movie Convention for the past two years I couldn’t agree more. The entire event plays out with misogyny at every corner including an address only two years ago that included rape jokes. Last year’s closing night ‘entertainment’ was female strippers under the guise of ‘burlesque’ and every year the convention kicks off with an afternoon on the golf course where the boys’ club get together to make corporate decisions and deals. There are lots of women working within these companies but like the focus puller on the film set, they’re often assistants and publicists, rarely the spokesperson, CEO or board member.
Things have to change. The hour-long panel was up before we knew it and there were still so many unanswered questions and provocations wanting to be addressed. How do we go about addressing the issue in screen industries where the implementation of mandatory quotas lies with the boys’ club whose sign still reads: ‘No Girls Allowed’? How can we forge forward in areas where we face a wall of men? Female role models and mentors seems a good place to start. Positive reflections and recognition of female achievement is imperative. An alternate list of powerful women is important and a great starting point but what we really need to do is re-write the list altogether. Carol Schwartz was right: you can’t be it if you can’t see it.
The closing date for Natalie Miller Fellowship Award applications is September 16th.
Tara Judah is a freelance film writer and radio critic. She is the Programming and Content Assistant at the Astor Theatre and a committee member of the Melbourne Cinematheque.