4 Ways Film Schools Can Do More for Female Students

“You can’t just admit marginalized students to your program and call it a day.”

When we’re talking about gender equality in the film industry, there’s a statistic that people love to reference: Roughly half of today’s film school grads are women.

It often comes up in the context of hand-wringing about the state of the industry. How could it possibly be, they ask, that so many women are being funnelled into the business each year, but the opportunities for them behind the camera haven’t improved in almost two decades? As MTV’s Shaunna Murphy asked back in 2015, “Why are only a very small few of them being paid actual money to make Hollywood films, while their male colleagues hop from Sundance to Marvel and back again?”

To be honest with you, friends, this line of questioning is starting to bore me. We already know that the film industry is hostile towards women and other marginalized groups. The studies have been done! The biases have been proven! The research is largely available online and for free!

There’s a less common angle to come at this issue from, but one that I think we’d benefit from putting more energy towards: What are film schools actually doing to ensure that female students succeed? Don’t get me wrong, enrolment numbers are important, and they’re a great place to start for any school that’s looking to do better. But you can’t just admit marginalized students to your program and call it a day; you have to actually help them out while they’re in your charge.

I put out an open call to young women who’ve graduated from film programs. I wanted to get a sense of how well their schools equipped them for the industry, and if there were any specific things that they wish had gone down differently. Some of the women who responded hail from Canada, others from the United States. All are in their early 30s or younger and work somewhere in the media industry.

Interestingly, in asking them about their film school courses, their class environments, and the extra-curricular support they received, these women expressed many of the same frustrations. This should give us a pretty clear idea of where some of the major blind spots are. So, here are four recommendations for any film school looking to do more for female students.

1. Prepare them for workplace sexual harassment.

I’m starting here because ignoring this issue, or assuming that students will pick this knowledge up elsewhere, can have serious repercussions for them. As so many #MeToo stories have made clear, sexual harassment is a real plague on this industry. It’s also serious enough that it’s causing women to leave it. That should freak all of us out, but it should be particularly concerning for film schools, who theoretically are supposed to set students up for successful (read: long) careers in media.

For Maria*, who graduated from a Canadian film program in 2017, not having discussed sexual harassment or gender-based discrimination in class made her first post-grad job unnecessarily nightmarish. She and her female colleagues “listened to [their] employer make derogatory and downright sexist comments about women as well as jokes about sexual assault on a weekly basis.” There were also other unpleasant norms at her workplace, like consistently being “asked to take time out of our work day to bake and cook in the office,” in addition to overly personal questions like why they didn’t have boyfriends and when they were planning on having children.

Maria said that although she remembers many conversations in class about the lack of female presence in the industry as a whole, there were none about what women could do if they experienced sexual harassment or found themselves in toxic work environments like hers. “We as female students were simply just encouraged to ‘get out there’ and ‘stand up’ for ourselves,” she said. She added that she would have benefitted from learning how to “recognize the red flags immediately and understand that what was going on in my office was not appropriate.”

Students need to know what abnormal (and illegal) behaviour looks like, and how best to remove themselves from such environments. Even dedicating a single class or workshop to these issues each year could make all the difference for them. Besides, your most promising student can’t exactly thank you in their Oscars acceptance speech if a predatory boss turned them off the industry altogether.

2. Make sure you’re teaching films by women.

This one sounds obvious (and like the bare minimum, if you ask me), but it’s still not the norm, even among more “progressive” film schools. I took a course during my own program called “Women and Film” that — no joke — centred mostly on films directed by men. To be fair, much of the course dealt with issues of representation for women in front of the camera — the male gaze, female agency, Laura Mulvey, and so on — but there was a glaring lack of women-directed films in my program overall. As a result, many of my classmates couldn’t name more than two or three female directors at the end of it.

Most film schools do have a designated elective for students to learn about women-directed work, but that’s part of the problem — it’s usually an elective, not considered core knowledge that every film student should have. As Erica Rose wrote in 2014 of her film school’s equivalent course, these films by women aren’t considered “important enough for everyone to learn.” Rose went on to add that even filmmakers like Dorothy Arzner, Lois Weber, and Alice Guy-Blaché, who “helped build what we know as the studio system,” were never mentioned at all.

There are many reasons why film schools should be teaching films by women, but one of the more crucial ones is this: The saying “If she can see it, she can be it” isn’t just bumper sticker fodder. Exposing female students to films by women is one of the best ways to inspire them to join their ranks. It’s much harder to envision yourself doing something when you lack the necessary reference points.

If you’re a professor or a TA, comb through your syllabi and/or lesson plans and see if you can be doing better to even out the gap. And if you’re a current film student and don’t feel like you’re hearing about enough films by women — or any at all, for that matter — don’t be afraid to ask why. If I’ve learned anything from Animal Crossing, it’s that you can’t get anything valuable out of the tree if you don’t shake it. (You might get bees instead, but it’s still worth checking.)

3. Don’t let harmful tropes and lazy writing past the screenplay stage.

The most commonly cited complaint among the women I spoke with was that they didn’t always feel like instructors had their backs when they chose to shake the proverbial tree, especially when they did so in class. Difficult conversations are supposed to transpire in classroom settings, especially since film schools are where aspiring filmmakers study things like tropes, agency, and representation — including what can happen when you get those things wrong.

When things get too heated in class, however, instructors have been known to take the easy way out. Sometimes, this means stopping a difficult conversation in its tracks. Other times, it means holding back with constructive criticisms of a student’s work that could ultimately make it less offensive to women and other marginalized groups.

The latter was a major concern for Lisa*, who graduated in 2015 from an American film program. “My school did nothing to stop the ideation of harmful projects,” she said, adding that despite complaints from peers, student work that towed the line between provocative and problematic “was billed as ‘self-expression’ and nothing else.” When she did speak up, she was reprimanded by a professor for “stirring up trouble.”

As a woman of colour, one of Lisa’s peers’ projects stood out for being lazy with respect to both gender and race. “There was a white dude in my cohort who made an elaborate final film about ‘the Mexican mafia’ where the main conflict was a rape of an undocumented little girl,” she said. “When I addressed it with him (in a class), it was dismissed as his ‘vision’ despite his lack of research on [the] group he was shooting” and a “gratuitous rape scene that offended nearly every woman in the presence of the screening.” When other students voiced their concerns, their “professors encouraged him to press further and use our anger to make it longer,” she said.

The thing is, if a budding young filmmaker’s lazy or harmful artistic habits go unchecked, they’ll persist well into their professional life. As the Media, Diversity & Social Change (MDSC) Initiative at USC Annenberg noted in a 2017 report, “Efforts must be made in spaces where learning, pitching, and work occurs to ensure environments do not trigger stereotypes.” Regardless of whether one of your students intended to offend anyone, it’s better for you to offer your two cents than to say nothing at all.

4. Take a good look at your faculty.

Do your instructors come from a diverse set of backgrounds and lived experiences? Are your core classes mostly taught by male professors, with the women handling the electives? Do you have any women teaching production classes? These things sound insignificant, but they have more of an impact on students than you might expect.

Part of it goes back to that “If she can see it, she can be it” thing. It’s important for students of all genders to see women in technically-oriented teaching positions, for instance, since there’s a stereotype that they naturally don’t “enjoy” or gravitate towards those sorts of roles. “I was asked by a peer if I knew how to open a tripod,” said Jacqueline*, who graduated from a Canadian film and drama program in 2016. (For the record, she did.)

“We need women to teach writing, directing, and production. We need to see women using equipment. We need role models, since Hollywood has a pitiful handful,” she added. These sorts of optics can help persuade or dissuade women from going into specific fields.

The list above is not intended to be an extensive one, but hopefully it paints a clearer picture of where there’s room for some improvement. It should also be noted that the issues I’ve laid out can be even worse for women of colour.

If you take just one thing away from this, please let it be that having a 50/50 gender split in a film program does not a feminist utopia make. Case in point: My graduating class was actually skewed female, and my school wasn’t exempt from any of the issues I’ve discussed. We’d all benefit from setting the bar even a little bit higher.

*Name has been changed.


Sydney Urbanek is a writer and the Founder of Reel Honey. Based in Toronto, she writes about film, feminism, and music videos. She knows the “Telephone” choreography but please don’t ask her to do it.

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