It’s 2018 and there are no women nominated as best director in the Golden Globes or the BAFTA’s.
The world of advertising is no different really. The system operates on this equation: directors = men. Individuals within the industry would never think they’re sexist in that way, after all it’s a creative field that attracts mavericks and free-thinkers. But it’s a deeply-entrenched equation, hard to unpick and tricky to see.
A few years ago, I went to Israel with a friend. Her father-in-law lived in Jerusalem after many years in the UK. He said that moving to Israel confirmed a suspicion he had but had never been able to prove - that anti-semitism was everywhere, simmering just below the surface of many of his interactions in the UK. He had constantly wondered if it was all just in his mind? An unsettling uneasiness permeated his life. When he got to Israel, he could clearly see that he had indeed been experiencing deeply entrenched anti-semitism. A relief to have that clarity finally! I said YES! I know what you mean, but for me it was SEXISM! So many interactions were laced with uncertainty - was that sexist or was I just being crazy? Am I interpreting things in the wrong way? And as a female director, the question often was did I not get the job because my work is crap or is it cuz they just want a dude?
But alas there was no ‘Israel’ to go to for a clear view. No place where women reign, no mythical isle of Lemnos to test the hypothesis.
There is the process of how directors get jobs in the world of advertising. In very broad strokes, here’s how it works: the agency writes a script for a product, the client approves it, and the agency then starts looking for directors. They go through hundreds of reels and narrow down a shortlist of three or four directors, who then write a treatment for how they would direct the spot. Budgets are submitted. The agency and client then choose a director and pre-production commences. Even getting to pitch on a script is hard these days, as competition is fierce.
So what scripts do they send to female directors vs male directors?
Broadly speaking, female directors get scripts about periods, hair, makeup, kids, and sensitive spots for charities with small budgets. (Unless it’s a really high profile script about periods, like the Libresse #bloodnormal spot. It was considered groundbreaking as it featured period blood for the first time in an ad. That definitely couldn’t be trusted to go to a female director, had to go to one of the guys.)
The rest of the world belongs to men. Cars, shops, grocery stores, food/drink, dog food, shoes, booze—for these products, the default director of choice is a man. Everyone who makes the decisions seems to feels safer with a guy at the helm. Look into their brains and when the word ‘director’ fires, an image of a white guy with a beard and a baseball cap appears.
We female directors just plough on. It’s a cut-throat industry and you need to be thick-skinned. Ignore the niggling voices, the outright discrimination. Keep your head down, Make good work, and try to fight the stereotypes by being good at our jobs.
As I write this, I find it hard to find the right tone to discuss it without sounding shrill and snarky, terms which are often used to keep women from raising the issue. So it’s understandable that we stay quiet or find a way to make jokes about it in a non-threatening way. It’s probably not a conscious decision on the client and agency’s part to feel safer with a man; the stereotype is so entrenched, it’s hard to unpick. The creatives have been working on the script for a year, and so much is riding on its execution that they are incredibly risk-averse. It often requires a big leap of faith to get them to take a risk on a female director who may have less work on their showreels. And on it goes, the snake continues to eat its tail. Are women’s reels not as good because they’re not getting the work which would make their work better? You see the conundrum…
So finally the issue is out in the open and change is afoot. For that we are thankful.
Time’s up. It’s incredibly exciting to be part of this movement.