Deb Verhoeven and Her Research Team Spearhead a Global Initiative on Gender Inequality Data

It’s no secret that inequality of the genders in the film industry has been slow to improve. Even on the backs of #Metoo and #Timesup movements, San Diego State University’s Celluloid Ceiling Report from 2018 still showed that only 8% of the top 250 films had women directors; only 16% had a female writer, and a measly 4% had female cinematographers.

We have all this data and we’re ready for change. Social media shows the global support toward equality has shifted, but we continue to wonder: Why is the needle not budging? Why does the data leave us feeling so hopeless?

We’re not alone with these questions because we have Deb Verhoeven with us in our corner of confusion and outrage. Verhoeven is a Professor of Digital Humanities and Women’s & Gender Studies at the University of Alberta. She is also a researcher, film critic, data enthusiast. Lucky for us, she is about to embark on a global research initiative that is a game-changer in addressing inequality in the film industry.

“What if we’ve been looking at the problem the wrong way round, and what if we have been using the data incorrectly?”

It all started about three to four years ago. Professor Verhoeven described sitting in front of her computer when she received an email reporting on gender equity data in the film industry. “The statistics were not just terrible, they were worse than when I started my engagement in the industry 30 years ago,” she said. It drove her to a full-blown midlife crisis where she felt like she’d failed spectacularly. “It was a mixture of despair and hubris—I knew it wasn’t my personal responsibility to fix the film industry, but at that moment, it felt like I had somehow personally failed.” It was a pretty extreme response to some data, but it was also what led her to pose the next big “what ifs.”

Professor Verhoeven explains that data itself has innate power, “if you have 30 years of repeatedly bad data for women’s involvement in the film industry for example, it starts to feel like it’s natural, as though things will never change.” We’ve been enacting initiatives (one example is ‘Female Forward’—an initiative introduced by NBC a few years back) and changing policies, but we’ve focused on collecting data about women and minorities—essentially trying to use them to create change. Yet, oppression stifles minorities, which makes it difficult for them to influence change. Verhoeven wondered, “what would happen if we didn’t insist that women must be the ones to change their behaviors.”

“What if men helped women take up powerful power? What would that look like?”

Professor Verhoeven questions why we don’t collect data about those who benefit from the industry staying the way it is. By researching male behavior in the film industry, how they form their relationships and the kinds of gatekeeping mechanisms that benefit them, we may get more insights and possibilities available to us in addressing the problems.

To start the research, it was essential to first look into who uses data to intervene in situations where one group dominates another. Professor Verhoeven realized that police and counterterrorism agencies use data like this to break up drug cartels or terrorist groups by doing criminal network analysis. So she started to do criminal network analysis and applied it to the film industry.

“This way we can see if there are so-called cartels or exclusive groups of men who are able to gatekeep access in the industry.”

Professor Verhoeven answers some further questions about the research in our discussion:

K: Could you tell us more about the collaboration itself and the researchers involved?

D: The project formally starts in April. I’ve done preliminary work with other interested researchers and published small studies on the Australian industry. But this is the first time we’ve been given the opportunity to dig deep and look at the longer historical context. The collaboration is between Germany, the UK, and Canada. This project brought together a crack team of researchers from these three jurisdictions. Our project will compare these three industries because although they share similar levels of inequality for women, they’re also very different. We wanted to keep the research to an achievable scale, but also give us enough data to compare and create realistic interventions—through government, industry, or influential people. If we treat the numbers as just another opportunity to gather more data, it would miss the point.

K: How will this research translate into practical solutions for the industry?

D: Our research is industry-facing. We like to work very closely with policymakers in the film industries so that they can understand there are new ways of thinking about how to create the conditions for change, in the form of imaginative policymaking or aspirational policymaking. There’s a theory that a lot of policies are reactive, so after a specific problem appears (not enough women), an equally specific policy is made to somehow help fix it (more women)—but it doesn’t get to the root of the inequity. It is more like lip service. Whether the policy is actually effective is rarely measured. When setting policies, we should be thinking “aspirationally”—what kind of industry do we want? It’s also important to note that the data modeling we will be using is intended to provoke this kind of creative thinking, not social engineering. I think we need to broaden the idea of where the problem lies, and therefore we should broaden the types of proposed solutions we come up with. . .

K: What can we do better?

D: I think the problem IS the “we”. The way we build our relationships is built on how similar we feel to someone. The true heart of the problem is how do we really know what we don’t know? Real innovation is reaching beyond what we are and what we know. How do we form those deep relationships with people who don’t look or sound like us? To me, that’s where innovation comes from—not from a room of people who all look the same, agreeing with each other. This is related to how the humanities forms knowledge—through this process of contestation. I really believe that we produce a better world with a better society if we feel confident and capable to recognize that deep sense of relationship to something that isn’t just us. So this is where I pause and ask what do we do with the “we” in that sentence. How do we form a different set of relationships? It’s on all of us—on white women, on men, all of them (pretty much). Let’s reach out beyond our sense of self and create these truly innovative relationships.

The Kinomatics research team I work with has been collecting data on all the films that have been screened around the world. Between 2012 – 2015 the data showed that about 15% of films released were directed by women, which is statistically right. But these films made up only 3% of the global screenings that we tracked. So we created the hashtag #methree, which is trying to say that aggregate statistics are not an aim in themselves. For example, we might increase the amount of films directed by women to 30-40%, but if they only make up 3 or 4% of global screenings, then the audience still won’t have access to them. 

So we also have to look at the films’ distribution, exhibition, how much money goes into advertising or budget size. There are lots of different variables that come into play and therefore we need targeted and cooperative solutions. There is no one solution that will change everything everywhere. Simply adding women directors and stirring won’t be enough since gatekeeping occurs at so many points of the lifecycle of a film.

Finally what we discovered with this unique global cinema dataset is that power inequalities in the film industry are both expressions of and contribute to much wider inequitable social problems. We found a positive correlation between socio-economic gender gaps at a country’s national level and the level of audience access to films directed by women in those countries. So yes, let’s get started on the film industry, but we cannot solve the problem by only tweaking the film industry. We might get more women to be directors, then that will show us that there are other problems such as distribution and that can lead to recognizing larger social inequalities. It’s a good incentive to produce some change because if we can help make a change in film, maybe it’ll ripple through to other parts of society and vice versa.

Verhoeven has already managed to shed light on the fact that diversity is not the problem; it is the solution. Daversity (too many Daves getting funding!) is the problem. In fact, an Australian hard lemonade brand had “Girls just want to have funding” written across the can—inspired by Verhoeven’s talks on global stages. Hopefully, the upcoming research will create models that can be applied across all industries that are supposedly driven by merit, and help prevent gatekeeping.

© Katusha Jin (02/04/2021) FF2 Media

You can find Deb Verhoeven on Twitter—@bestqualitycrab.

Photo Credits: Deb Verhoeven; Daniel Robinson

Tags: Big Data, daversity, Deb Verhoeven, katusha jin, Research

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Katusha Jin joined FF2 Media’s team in 2017 whilst she was still a film student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. In 2019 she was the recipient of SCMP’s journalism scholarship and studied under the mentorship of an Oscar award-winning documentary director in Hong Kong. She went on to receive her master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong where she graduated with distinction. Katusha has previously worked in the advertising industry, and when she is not writing for FF2 Media, she can be found working on films as a director, producer, and writer. As a trilingual filmmaker, her experiences have cultivated an interest in the intersection between cultural diversity and creativity, and she brings that to her work both as a creative and as a critic. She is also a voice-over hobbyist, a fitness enthusiast, a student of comedy, and is always on the lookout for musical and theatrical collaborations.
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