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Women need a seat at the table.

Women need a seat at the table.

When I earned my undergraduate degree in media arts, I was one of two women in my graduating class. And 20 years later, as I moved from video producer to business partner to leader of a production and postproduction studio, I’m still surrounded by men. 

As a leader at one of a handful of women-led production and postproduction studios between Chicago and Detroit, I live the challenges—and opportunities—of a woman in a male-dominated industry daily. We’re at a tipping point right now for gender equality and I’m passionate about playing a role in moving the business and creative worlds toward equity.

If you are a data geek like me, spend a little time with the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. It is the longest running and most comprehensive studies of women in film and television, producing extensive research that provides the foundation for a realistic and meaningful discussion of women’s on-screen representation and behind-the-scenes employment.

What have they learned?

Broadly, women make up only 10 percent of commercial directors and not quite 20 percent of producers. 

What does this mean? 

We’re not represented. 

If our voices are missing during strategic creative conversations, then the blind spots and assumptions our male counterparts have regarding gender equality continue to be what makes it on the page (and gets shot, edited and distributed).

Even my team is made up of mostly men. They’re men I trust and whose expertise I value. Yet even in my own studio, it’s still about representation. 

Yes, a record number of women ran in races up and down the ballots in the 2018 midterm elections, with more likely to come in 2020. #MeToo and #TimesUp have given women a platform to share experiences and educate the world about sexual assault and harassment. And while films with female leads continue to perform at the box office, we aren't seeing the same growth in opportunities for women behind the lens.

Women’s experiences, stories, and contributions cannot be authentically expressed if we don’t have seats at that strategic creative table. 

What is creative content losing in our absence? Three things: 

  1. People-oriented listening. Women are listening to understand, seeking the context and truth of what’s being said. We’re not simply waiting for our turn to talk or for our ideas to be validated. 
  2. Decision-making rooted in contribution and quality, rather than economy. Women tend to shift project resources to focus on strategic choices based on what they learned through people-oriented listening. And though we may use those resources differently than men, we’re still finishing projects on time and on budget. 
  3. An innate unwillingness to fail. By and large, women don't have the platform to fail hard without major personal and professional consequences, which means we avoid it at all costs.  

I know these are broad brush strokes. And it’s important for me to acknowledge that I don’t speak for everyone or every experience.

Recently, I’ve seen how having a more representative team working on a project has resulted in a better product. My counterparts are women with two national clients right now. There has been an unspoken acceptance that the wrenches life can throw into our workday do not need to be excused. We have the grace to put the quality of our contributions above the schedule, working together balancing the need to meet realistic deadlines while creating a damn good product. 

I’m confident that women can take creative to new levels by embracing our propensity to research and get questions answered. Often it feels as though our male counterparts expect us to explain why we dive deep. In moments like these, I remind them that our priorities are in line, and that I’m looking at the ultimate outcome, as opposed to simply checking boxes. How we move through projects is different. 

How can we - men and women, alike - fix it? In an age where so many injustices seem irreparable, I think there are some immediate solutions to this problem of representation.

  1. Women, when you are at the table, and you're the only one, ask why
  2. Women, pull people along with you—lift up people who are like you. 
  3. Men, refer to the first point. We need to get to the point where men feel safe calling out when the people at the table are not the right mix. 

This is risky business, I know. It requires a willingness to risk our own careers and go to bat for someone else. 

But we must. 

So, look around you. Is representation equal at your table? If not, stand up and ask why. You got this.  


Karen Stefl