At the opening of the Women’s Voices panel discussion at Ford’s Theatre on Oct. 5, Driven: Trailblazing Women of the Entertainment Industry, moderator Michel Martin asked: “Could we just take a moment to consider the fact that we are here?” The weekend host of NPR’s All Things Considered was alluding not only to the theatre’s role in history, but to the significance of the event at hand: three high-profile women in the arts and entertainment industries were meeting to discuss how gender has shaped their careers and choices of material. The panel was a part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, in which over 50 theaters the Washington, D.C. area produce new original works by female playwrights.
In addition to the audience, Martin was specifically addressing panelists Vicki Dummer, Executive Vice President, Current Series Programming for the ABC Entertainment Group, and Leah Meyerhoff, award-winning filmmaker and founder of Film Fatales, an all-female film collective. A topic that arose early-on in the discussion was that of mentorship - because of the gender bias of the industry, young female filmmakers simply don’t have the same number of mentors of their own gender available to them as their male colleagues. As Meyerhoff said, “Kathryn Bigelow can’t mentor everyone.” The same is true for women on the executive side of things, according to Dummer, although both women agreed that this is changing more rapidly in the television industry than that of film. Dummer pointed specifically to people like Shonda Rhimes, who helped transform her own network, as game-changers in recent years when it comes to representations of women and minorities on television.
Both women expressed frustration with the gender imbalance in the industry, particularly when it comes to the opportunities offered to young professionals and filmmakers. Meyerhoff blamed this on unconscious, institutionalized sexism; as she put it, “People like to work with people who look like themselves.” In other words, male leaders in the industry often don’t realize their own bias, but simply mentor people with whom they identify - typically other men.
Meyerhoff’s collective Film Fatales offers one solution for filmmakers seeking strong female mentors. In describing the dynamics of the collective to Martin, she emphasized the power of community that mentorship can provide: the idea that you’re not alone. The collective, based in New York, meets regularly to mentor one another, collaborate, and provide advice. There are also local chapters throughout the world. In areas of the entertainment industry where collectives are a less viable option, Dummer suggested active networking among female executives as a way to fight gender bias.
The panel closed with a call to action: all three women implored the audience to support filmmakers whose demographics are marginalized in the entertainment industry, such as women and people of color, by consuming their work and seeking out material that supports diversity. As Dummer put it, “Vote with your presence.”