Visual Effects: The Gender Bias Behind The Screen

Editor’s note: Sonya Teich and Raqi Syed are VFX artists who have worked on major films in L.A., London and New Zealand.

In a year that included the public disclosure of disappointing diversity numbers by major Silicon Valley companies, the frightening Gamergate controversy, and a public airing of emails and salary data at Sony confirming a culture of sexism within Hollywood, the discussion about women across tech industries reached a fever pitch in 2014.

If 2013 was the year of the selfie, then 2014 was the year the camera turned outwards and revealed a devastating gender bias both in how our modern culture frames women and within the industry that manufactures that culture.

Over the past year, companies like Google, Facebook and Apple have announced comprehensive plans to close the gender gap, appearing to be serious about the idea that the low percentage of women in their ranks reflects a bias in their culture and limits the scope of their projects. This leaves many women working in visual effects, an industry faced with the same kind of gender disparity, wondering why we are not having a discussion nearly as thoughtfully or even loudly.

The discourse surrounding women in VFX has only been briefly broached and largely dismissed in a few industry-specific blogs and trade magazines. Do chauvinism and misogyny have to be elevated to the level of personal harm on public forums in order for Hollywood to have a meaningful conversation about gender?

In an address to the Visual Effects Society this past October, Victoria Alonso, Marvel’s Exec VP of visual effects and post-production, urged visual effects companies to examine the glaring gender inequality within its ranks:

You’ve got to get the girls in here, boys. It’s better when it’s 50-50. I have been with you beautiful, handsome, talented, creative men in dark rooms for two decades and I can tell you those rooms are better when there are a few of us in them. So as you take this with you, please remember that it’s OK to allow the ladies in. They’re smart, they’re talented. They bring a balance that you need.

Alonso has long been a controversial figure to the VFX community. Many believe that through her contract negotiations with VFX houses and her efforts to reduce costs for Marvel, she holds some responsibility for creating the difficult conditions which plague visual effects. Her reputation and, arguably, her status as a woman, caused some within the industry to dismiss her comments about gender inequality as “platitudes,” while accusing her of being responsible for driving women out by creating an environment that is hostile to them.

Much of the media discussion about VFX in recent years has revolved around its subsidies-driven business model, which has given rise to a culture of perpetual instability, as VFX houses struggle to stay in the black. Hundred-hour weeks, three-month contracts in which an artist may work in Vancouver, Singapore, London and New Zealand all in one year have so numbed employees to the punishing lifestyle that many have internalized the idea that they must work 16-hour days for weeks on end or they aren’t essential to the process.

The lack of female participation in their production is disquieting, but not surprising.

Yet, in spite of the financial woes of individual companies, VFX-driven movies have come to constitute the overwhelming majority of blockbusters, taking on inestimable cultural significance in the process. The lack of female participation in their production is disquieting, but not surprising. Those who have not worked in visual effects may find themselves appalled by a casual anti-corporate culture in which company-wide mailing lists devoted to “Porn Fridays,” conferences featuring “booth babes” in skin-tight motion-capture suits and crass gynecology jokes made by a director of one of the year’s biggest films embody a sexism owned as much by the workers as the institutions themselves.

What Alonso’s statements, and a divided reaction to them reveal, is that talking about gender is difficult in an industry plagued by instability. The solution to the broad dysfunction remains murky, and responsibility continues to be directed at governments and multinational corporations.

While it would be convenient to attribute the cause of VFX‘s woman problem to the same broken business model, the fact remains that this is an industry in which an artist can work for 10 years, hopping from one studio to another, and never once encounter a woman in a top level technical position. This and the abysmally low percentage of women in all technical roles, speak to the deeper bias that is reflected in the wider tech industry.

Other tech companies have an infrastructure by which diversity data is collected, but specific statistics about women in visual effects are virtually nonexistent. VFX houses have imported the culture of tech, but they seem to lack the same impetus for improvement, using razor-thin margins and short-term projections to absolve themselves of responsibility, and often citing non-disclosure-agreements between studios and contractors as a reason for neither collecting nor sharing diversity data. Thus the VFX community finds itself in a situation where there is no data to elevate the gender discussion to one of metrics and incremental gains.

In an article entitled “Hacking Tech’s Diversity Problem,” Joan C. Williams outlines the patterns of gender bias facing women at tech companies—institutions regarded by the people within them as “meritocracies” in which success is based on skill alone. Although studies on in-group favoritism have debunked the existence of true meritocracies, this widespread belief remains problematic for women; the subtext being that they are not represented because they are not as intelligent.

Notably, Williams cites “the maternal wall,” referring to biases triggered by motherhood: “A common take is that the long-hours culture drives women out of tech, but often what drives them out is sexism.”

Williams cites a study in which mothers were 79 percent less likely to be offered a job than equally qualified candidates who were not. A frequent assertion heard in VFX is that women do not pursue their careers because it is too difficult to endure the current working conditions and have a family. Yet the idea that many are not self-selecting out of the industry needs to be considered.

As the tech industry starts to look beyond a quota-based system of simply raising the female “body count,” VFX needs to do the same. Companies must consider not only hiring practices, but also distribution of responsibilities, performance evaluation, and how the current dysfunction of these processes breeds an overall bias that colors the view of female competence. Recognizing biases and interrupting them when possible is critical.

What’s happening both behind and in front of the camera in mainstream big budget movie making is out of step with the current discourse on gender equality. The endemic gender discrimination women speak of and experience in VFX is no longer being tolerated in companies across disciplines.

Actress Geena Davis and the USC Annenberg Center have drawn attention to data illustrating what a gender balanced approach to movies would actually look like. We believe these initiatives need to happen both above and below the line. Given that Hollywood movies are increasingly competing with video games, television and social media, the continued relevancy of movies hinges upon the ability of studios and decision-makers in the field of VFX to remain in step with audiences or risk losing them.

The visual effects community would do well to acknowledge the reasons gender disparity exists, and move toward implementing meaningful change that will bring women back into the screening rooms and keep them there.