Screen Australia’s gender strategy a good step forward, but doesn’t go far enough. Guardian Au`

Guardian Australia, March 2016

Screen Australia’s $5m Gender Matters plan, announced in December, has been heralded as an important moment in the Australian industry, and one which should have come sooner. The policy, which closed for the first round of applications just last week, directs funds to film projects with female-driven creative teams and female protagonists. It also aims to support storytelling by women, and the professional development of women in the industry – particularly writers and directors.

The aim of Gender Matters is to remedy what Screen Australia’s figures from 2014 show to be entrenched sexism in the film industry, which has been preventing women from working in key creative roles. In feature film-making, women account for 32% of producers, 16% of directors and 23% of writers. The world of documentary film-making is slightly kinder to women, but still off-kilter: women account for 46% of producers, 34% of directors and 38% of writers. All these statistics point to what seems to be a de facto bias operating in men’s favour.

Screen Australia’s initiative seemed like a crucial step towards parity for theAustralian film industry, but it’s worth asking: does Gender Matters go far enough?

This month, Canada’s National Film Board announced its gender policy: over the course of the next three years, half its production funding would be allocated to female film-makers. The board has not created a separate funding stream for female film-makers; instead, it has made a full commitment to gender parity among directors in funding requirements.

It’s a very simple course of action, and it hugely one-ups Screen Australia’s initiative.

The aim of a gender policy should not be to vaguely “address the gender imbalance”, but to correct the discrimination that women face right now. If we are not aiming for parity, then what is the point? We’re just playing, tinkering around the edges, paying lip service to a feel-good idea, but not seriously tackling it.

In October 2015, the Australian Directors Guild called for a 50% gender equality quota.

“The screen industry has been funded by the federal government for more than four decades for reasons of cultural representation, economic stimulus, and professional development and innovation,” said the guild president, Ray Argall.

“Across all these criteria the current funding is not being shared in a representative way. The [guild] is concerned with diversity of all types, but is particularly concerned with the dramatic lack of equity in the funding of women and, in particular, female directors.”

Parity is not about sweet, admirable sentiments: “Wouldn’t it be nice to have more women in film!” It is about ending workplace discrimination. It’s about fixing the structural and material elements of entrenched sexism that have shut women out of the film industry for so long, holding us back from the jobs and opportunities that are more accessible to men, and effectively preventing our stories from being told.

Gender parity among key creative roles of government funded films is not a utopian dream. It is entirely possible, and growing precedents suggest it may become the new policy norm: Sweden accomplished it in 2014, within two and a half years of aiming for it, and Canada is on its way. Screen NSW has set an aim for gender parity, but its target year of 2020 is too far away. If we are serious about rectifying the gender divide, we need measurable action, now. We needmandatory quotas, not optional targets, to ensure that male-dominated projects do not automatically receive the majority of public funding.

The absence of a gender parity aim is not the only problem with Gender Matters. Craters have emerged in the policy’s “three-tick” test, which states that projects will benefit from the policy only if three out of four creative positions are occupied by women: director, producer, writer and protagonist.

As an industry analyst and scholar, Deb Verhoeven, has pointed out, most female directors already work with female producers. It is not women film professionals who need to change for the better, but the male-dominated culture within the film industry, with its structural and insidious prejudices. Supporting the careers of individual female film-makers is important, but so is having integrated creative teams, where men and women work together and learn from each other.

The Australian film industry is government subsidised. That means policy can be enacted right now to correct gender discrimination – and it is fully within the remit of Screen Australia to only fund projects that employ women in key creative positions equally. In fact, if it doesn’t move towards parity, we are wilfully directing public funds to a sector of the industry that is discriminating on the basis of gender. For an industry that’s in the business of telling stories, seeing most of them through a male lens has far-reaching cultural consequences.

The only antidote to gender inequality is full equality: parity for women in key creative positions in all government-subsidised films. If we don’t explicitly aim for parity, we won’t reach it – and if we don’t reach it, we continue eroding the democratic ideals of the publicly funded film policy that Australia has pursued since the 1970s.

For the next rewrite of Gender Matters, why aim for anything less?

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