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Three ways Screen Australia can actually improve diversity in the industry

Australia’s defining narratives are apparently stories by, for and about white cis men. George A. Spiva Center for the Arts

Three ways Screen Australia can actually improve diversity in the industry

Since the 1970s the argument for government subsidy to the local film industry has been made in terms of the opportunity it provides for Australians “to tell our own stories”.

What isn’t clear in this aspirational statement is that, from the outset, these stories have been told almost exclusively in monotone.

Australia’s defining narratives are apparently, and with rare exception, stories by, for and about white cis men.

In this context Screen Australia’s recent announcement of a suite of measures intended to address gender equity in the film industry has been widely welcomed.

At the heart of Screen Australia’s response is an endeavour to congregate women creatives (writer, producer, director and protagonist) using a three-tick test (based on a now superseded UK initiative of the same name). But what changes can we realistically expect to emerge from this initiative?

Piecemeal strategies

Over the years some attempts have been made to redress inequities in the industry, including:

The historical evidence suggests that, as substantive game-changers, these piecemeal strategies are doomed.

Despite various attempts to improve gender equity in the Australian film industry the data is clear: the position for women in key creative roles has simply worsened. The number of women directors, to take just one metric, is down from 22% in 1992 to 17% in 2014.

It is safe to assume that sporadic equal-opportunity measures or affirmative-action policies that identify the statistical representation of women as the cause rather than the symptom of a problem do not create the conditions for improved diversity throughout the film industry.

It is not the numbers we need to be focused on. It’s the values.

Quotas, compliance measures, targets and even good intentions focused on altering the behaviours of minorities are simply not good enough. The problem isn’t that there aren’t enough women. The problem is that too many men benefit from the current system.

We need to look at the systemic and pervasive bias towards rewarding men in the industry at all levels, including within Screen Australia’s micro-practices and macro-structures. We need to critically examine the culture of male entitlement that underlies the film industry and its administration.

Women aren’t the problem

The data tells us that women already tend to work together in the industry: in the past five years 90% of women directors had female producers.

Male creatives on the other hand, have a demonstrated preference for working with other men. So by proposing an initiative designed to get women to work together, Screen Australia is reiterating the status quo rather than solving an evident problem.

Perhaps more promising is Screen Australia’s (rather vague) commitment to adding the gender and cultural diversity of creative teams as a consideration in its funding assessment procedures. The cautionary language it has used to describe this initiative is quite revealing:

Eligibility will still be assessed on merit, but preference may be given to those who have gender and cultural diversity in their teams.

The telling use of the word “but” suggests that, for Screen Australia, merit is somehow distinct from diversity.

There is a long literature on how organisations use “merit” as a way of defending incumbent organisational biases. And many studies across a range of industries confirm that the perception of bias plays a key role in underrepresented groups avoiding participation.

In Australia, women constitute around half of all film-school graduates. And yet they do not go on to receive the full benefits of a public funding system delivered through Screen Australia. This is a spectacular waste of industry resource and an indictment on the national funding agency which doesn’t, and hasn’t for a long time, served the full national interest.

It is organisational accountability that is sorely lacking. The three-year project based plan proposed by Screen Australia should not be confused with an ongoing open-ended policy commitment.

What we really need is for funding agencies and key organisations to be more accountable for their biases. What we really need to know is how Screen Australia will adopt measures to deal with both explicit and unconscious bias in its own work culture.

First, we need to accept that project evaluation is not objective. Let’s finally admit that Screen Australia’s assessment processes would be made only slightly less defensible if they also involved the use of chicken entrails.

Graeme Mason, the CEO of Screen Australia says there will not be quotas along the lines of the Swedish Film Institute’s successful intervention. But the truth is we already have quotas. For men.

The point is not to incorporate a few more women in a biased system. The point is to change the system. That means aiming for change at every level – from the way the paperwork is organised to changing the very definitions of what constitutes merit or success.

A few suggestions

Here are three quick suggestions for Screen Australia to improve diversity in the Australian screen industries by looking at the problem from a systemic rather than programmatic level:

  1. Stop funding producers who have no demonstrated track record for diversity. If you belong to an all white cis male creative team your time is over.
  2. Insist that all project assessors take the unconscious bias test. Or even better, develop one specifically for cultural agencies and apply it or use blind review processes.
  3. Apply the Bechdel test or a variation to all government-funded scripts.

Use the data to track your own biases and to improve organisational self-awareness rather than to monitor minorities. Gender (or race or ability or age) is not just one thing as crude statistical measures suggest. Take this opportunity to rethink the current definition and management of success and merit in order to embrace difference in a way that doesn’t further stereotype people.

Above all, remember that diversity should be the expectation not the exception. Projects that don’t meet diversity standards need to explain why. Not the other way around.

We are all entitled to expect that a government-subsidised cultural industry will tell “our” stories in all their complexity and variety. From this moment on.