Will the Secret Hollywood Task Force on Gender Equality Actually Make a Difference?

After several extremely damning major media stories on gender discrimination in Hollywood — and the news of one government investigation — it seems like at least some people in the industry are getting serious about making change.

Deadline has reported on a secret meeting consisting of “industry leaders” — producers, directors, agents and studio representatives  — that took place back in October. The 44 people at the meeting, including such figures as Maria Bello, Catherine Hardwicke, producer Nina Jacobsen, and Jenji Kohan, left with a four-point plan to enact widespread change, as well as personal pledges to keep up with the work. The meeting’s facilitators honed their bona fides taming sexism in notorious sectors of Corporate America and the tech industry, having “designed breakthrough strategies for women’s advancement with such companies as Google, Goldman Sachs, Time Warner, NBC Universal, Bloomberg and Intel.”

The four-point plant they came up with is as follows:

The plan includes gender bias training, a sponsor/protégé program, an ambassador program to spread the word that the industry is serious about change and a “gender parity stamp” to be placed on films and TV shows that embrace gender equality.

I decided to compare these programs with the five types of sexism I identified in Maureen Dowd’s recent deep dive into women’s experiences in Hollywood for the New York Times Magazine. Will bias training, mentorship, an ambassador program, and a “gender parity stamp” be enough to seriously combat the many different kinds of prejudice and discrimination that conspire to keep women from achieving equality in the industry?

One type of sexism that could be seriously impacted by the very existence these programs is what the Times story described as a code of silence, a sense that there would be punishment for women who spoke out about sexism. This means that even high-ranking women can feel muzzled, their power to effect change curbed. The sponsorship program will create official channels for these women who have made strides to help other women, and maybe even allow younger women or people of color to find mentorship with powerful white men who want to do their part.

Furthermore, with 44 fairly major figures taking on the mantle of gender equality — and, indeed, with the bad publicity that presumably led to the convening of this conference to begin with — at the very least, some people in the industry may feel more empowered to speak out when they see a problem without repercussions. Finally, the ambassador program, in which the meeting attendees pledged their commitment to “spread the word about the solutions to studios, networks and agencies” is a smart way to ensure that the conversation is carried on under official auspices, too, keeping the burden from falling on a few whistleblowers’ shoulders.

But what about the two most linked, insidious, and hard to quantify problems: the persistence of gender stereotypes both onscreen and behind the scenes? Catherine Hardwicke, the director who was at the meeting and also spoke to the Times, told Dowd, “a man gets a standing ovation for crying because he’s so sensitive, but a woman is shamed.”

This brings up the trickiest aspect of the solution: unconscious bias training. Can a series of training sessions actually teach big shots in Hollywood to reconsider the way they look at race and gender? This will be no easy task, but the idea is that these trainings will emphasize that “creating more content for women and people of color is not only about equality; it also makes good business sense.” This is certainly the only way to sell the training, yet I have mixed feelings about the idea; on the one hand, I can see the rolling eyes and the executives ignoring the speakers to check their iPhone. On the other hand,  the spread of similar corporate sexual harassment seminars — while far from perfect — has actually made an impact on workplace culture.

Perhaps unconscious bias trainings can make a small impact. At the very least, they can educate the well-meaning folks who genuinely think of themselves as being pro-diversity but are blind to the ways they perpetuate the status quo. It might make some eyes open to the idea that the “I called a female candidate and she said no — I tried!” excuse does not represent an actual effort at diversity.

Finally, there’s the “short memory” problem, wherein films aimed at or created by women or people of color get judged more harshly when they flop and forgotten when they do well. The best example of this is that women directors’ careers are more likely to be torpedoed by a single disaster (see: Ishtar), while men make flops and live to see another film (see: M. Night Shyamalan). This is the systemic problem that is probably least likely to be resolved by any of the initiatives proposed at the secret conference, because it’s a kind of subconscious bias that is less about personnel (hiring, promotions) than about an entire industry and worldview. Similarly, the fact that foreign studios balk at films with female leads — even action films — is not something that any of these initiatives can change. But the “gender parity stamp” proposed at the conference can at least encourage consumers to vote with their wallets, giving these films a small but significant boost at home, and maybe influencing the media narrative around diverse releases.

The bottom line is that all of these proposals do show promise and have the potential to make some difference, but it’s also important to pursue changes that are more stringent and regulatory and less voluntary. For instance, will studios fire people who are notoriously bad on diversity? Will trainings be mandatory parts of new-employee orientations? It’s excellent news that people in Hollywood are taking gender inequality in their industry in hand, but a discrimination lawsuit or that government investigation might make as much or more difference than even the best-faith effort from people who probably already cared about this issue.