The VFX Industry: Where are the women?

By Jennie Zeiher

As anyone in the visual effects industry would know, Marvel’s Victoria Alonso was honored earlier this year with the Visual Effects Society Visionary Award. Victoria is an almighty trailblazer, one of whom us ladies can admire, aspire to and want to be.

Her acceptance speech was an important reminder to us of the imbalance of the sexes in our industry. During her speech, Victoria stated: “Tonight there were 476 of you nominated. Forty-three of which are women. We can do better.”

Over the years, I’ve had countless conversations with industry people — executives, supervisors and producers — about why there are fewer women in artist and supervisory roles. A recent article in the NY Times suggested that female VFX supervisors made up only five percent of the 250 top-grossing films of 2014. Pretty dismal.

I’ve always worked in male-dominated industries, so I’m possibly a bit blasé about it. I studied IT and worked as a network engineer in the late ‘90s, before moving to the United States where I worked on 4K digital media projects with technologists and scientists. One of a handful of women, I was always just one of the boys. To me it was the norm.

Moving into VFX about 10 years ago, I realized this industry was no different. From my viewpoint, I see about 1/8 ratio of female to male artists. The same is true from what I’ve seen through our affiliated training courses. Sadly, I’ve heard of some facilities that have no women in artist roles at all!

Most of the females in our industry work in other disciplines. At my workplace, Australia’s Rising Sun Pictures, half of our executive members are women (myself included), and women generally outweigh men in indirect overhead roles (HR, finance, administration and management), as well as production management.

Women bring unique qualities to the workplace: they’re team players, hard working, generous and empathetic. Copious reports have found that companies that have women on their board of directors and in leadership positions perform better than those that don’t. So in our industry, why do we see such a male-dominated artist, technical and supervisory workforce?

By no means am I undervaluing the women in those other disciplines (we could not have functioning businesses without them), I’m just merely trying to understand why there aren’t more women inclined to pursue artistic jobs and, ultimately, supervision roles.

I can’t yet say that one of the talented female artists I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years has risen to the ranks of being a VFX supervisor… and that’s not to say that they couldn’t have, just that they didn’t, or haven’t yet. This is something that disappoints me deeply. I consider myself a (liberal) feminist. Someone who, in a leadership position, wants to enable other women to become the best they can be and to be equal among their male counterparts.
So, why? Where are the women?

Men and Women Are Wired Differently
A study by LiveScience suggests men and women really are wired differently. It says,  “Male brains have more connections within hemispheres to optimize motor skills, whereas female brains are more connected between hemispheres to combine analytical and intuitive thinking.”

Apparently this difference is at its greatest during the adolescent years (13-17 years), however with age these differences get smaller. So, during the peak of an adolescent girl’s education, she’s more inclined to be analytical and intuitive. Is that a direct correlation to them not choosing a technical vocation? But then again I would have thought that STEM/STEAM careers would be something of interest to girls if they’re brains are wired to be analytical?

This would also explain women having better organizational and management skills and therefore seeking out more “indirectly” associated roles.

Lean Out
For those women already in our industry, are they too afraid to seek out higher positions? Women are often more self-critical and self-doubting. Men will promote themselves and dive right in, even if they’re less capable. I have experienced this first hand and didn’t actual recognize it in myself until I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.

Or, is it just simply that we’re in a “boys club” — that these career opportunities are not being presented to our female artists, and that we’d prefer to promote men over women?

The Star Wars Factor
Possibly one of the real reasons that there is a lack of women in our industry is what I call “The Star Wars factor.” For the most part, my male counterparts grew up watching (and being inspired by) Star Wars and Star Trek, whereas, personally, I was more inclined to watch Girls Just Want to Have Fun and Footloose. Did these adolescent boys want to be Luke or Han, or George for that matter? Were they so inspired by John Dykstra’s lightsabers that they wanted to do THAT when they grew up? And if this is true, maybe Jyn, Rae and Captain Marvel —and our own Captain Marvel, Victoria Alonso — will spur on a new generation of women in the industry. Maybe it’s a combination of all of these factors. Maybe it’s none.

I’m very interested in exploring this further. To address the problem, we need to ask ourselves why, so please share your thoughts and experiences — you can find me at jz@vfxjz.com. At least now the conversation has started.

One More Thing!
I am very proud that one of my female colleagues, Alana Newell (pictured with her fellow nominees), was nominated for a VES Award this year for Outstanding Compositing in a Photoreal Feature for X-Men: Apocalypse. She was one of the few, but hopefully as time goes by that will change.

Main Image: The woman of Rising Sun Pictures.
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Jennie Zeiher is head of sales & business development at Adelaide, Australia’s Rising Sun Pictures.


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