‘A pre-industry issue’: New report examines diversity on and off screen at film school

A new report released this week by the Australian Screen Production Education and Research Association (ASPERA) shows that there is limited on screen diversity within students’ capstone projects at film school, and behind the camera, crew roles are gendered.

Enter into a conversation about gender equity in the screen industry, and inevitably someone will mention that men and women graduate film school in even numbers. The argument follows that it’s only upon entry to the workforce that women’s participation rates fall.

Released this week, a new study conducted by ASPERA, the peak body for university-based screen production in Australia, shows it is indeed true that even numbers of men and women complete capstone projects at film school.

However, on those projects, the crew roles are already gendered. In particular, cinematographer and sound designer roles are more likely to be filled by men, while producer and production design roles are dominated by women.

Other roles, while less skewed, tend to be male-dominated.

Source: ASPERA.

The study’s results are informed by a survey of course leaders and instructors from 17 film schools and universities around Australia, asked about diversity on screen and behind the camera in their student’s 2019 capstone or culminating screen production units.

Comments from instructors surveyed suggest that the majority of student crews are self-formed, and no institution reported directly intervening to ensure gender diversity.

For Kath Dooley, senior lecturer and discipline lead in theatre, screen and immersive media at Curtin University, and chair of APSERA’s research sub-committee, the report highlights that gender equity is not just “an industry issue”, but a “pre-industry issue”.

“Certain genders are very much heading towards particular crew roles. Maybe that’s a result of conditioning – that our society and culture says: these are the roles that are more suited to males, and these are the roles that are more suited to females,” Dooley tells IF.

“We’ve always suspected [these results]. We see our female students taking on the more support roles like producer, where they’re looking after people, and male students getting drawn towards the more technological roles.

“But it raises questions. Where does this conditioning start; where do people start gravitating towards to different areas? Why is that? And also, what can we do to try and give people confidence that if they do have an interest in some of those other areas… to pursue them?

In front of the camera

ASPERA’s research also found that on screen diversity within student’s capstone projects was limited.

While there was an even split of male and female lead characters, there was low to minimal diversity in terms of characters’ cultural background, language spoken, disability status or sexual orientation.

However, diversity was higher for postgraduate projects than undergraduate, with the researchers posing that this may be due to higher levels of international students enrolled in post-grad study.

“We’re seeing a lack of diversity, which I think to some degree – we can’t say for sure – perhaps mirrors a lack of diversity in the cohort that are studying in these degrees,” Dooley says.

“It raises questions about access, and about how we as educators can do something about this. We don’t want people creating stories that aren’t theirs to tell. But we do want to see more diversity in the stories that are being told.”

Source: ASPERA.

All institutions surveyed reported their students were exposed to subjects or capstones in which diversity issues were addressed explicitly. And most reported that movements like #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite, and Screen Australia’s Gender Matters program, had influenced student production processes.

“I believe that students are more conscious of being in all male or all female teams than they may previously have been. All male teams are seen as needing scrutiny,” said one respondent.

Various strategies to address diversity and gender were suggested by the surveyed instructors and teachers. These included directly addressing it via overt curriculum design, discussion to ensure students are aware of their own built-in prejudices, and including diverse texts.

As one respondent said: ” We have students take the Bechdel Test, the DuVernay Test, etc, to see if they would pass muster. Sometimes the students, who believe they are woke and with it, realise their own productions could have more diversity.

“We also have a reflective assessment element to the capstone production units design, which encourages students to understand their own biases and helps students to identify areas for improvement.’

It was also suggested teachers have some direct intervention if projects aren’t diverse, and that all students are given opportunities to get their hands on equipment, to reduce any technical intimidation.

Looking forward

It is ASPERA’s hope that this initial data will lay the foundation for further research and industry discussion.

In particular, Dooley would like to do more research with students themselves, to determine what it is that makes them gravitate towards different crew roles, and any obstacles they face.

It would also be prudent to look at student cohort demographics, to obtain “a bigger picture about who it is that is coming in to study these degrees, who then go on to be the next generation of storytellers.”

With the Federal Government poised to hike up fees for arts and humanities degrees, who will be able to study screen media at a tertiary level into the future is of concern to Dooley and many of her colleagues within ASPERA.

“That has ramifications for the types of stories that we’re likely to see, in terms of: Who is the student cohort who’s able to come to the university and do these courses?” she says.

Dooley would like to open a dialogue with industry that examines how educational institutions be more involved with diversity and inclusion initiatives.

By the same token, she believes it may be of benefit to work with high schools and organisations such as ATOM, as perhaps “some of the seeds are sown” early on as to why students gravitate towards certain crew roles.

AFTRS CEO Nell Greenwood congratulated ASPERA on the research, telling IF: “We are making progress but, as this research indicates, there is still much to do to ensure we have a genuinely accessible and inclusive industry across all departments, and all areas, and that the content we make reflects all of Australia, and all Australians.”

Read the full ASPERA report here.