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Where are the women? Unconscious bias training planned to make Irish films more diverse

It is being considered by the Irish Film Board.

Image: Shutterstock/ChameleonsEye

UNCONSCIOUS BIAS TRAINING is being mooted as a way of making the Irish film industry more diverse.

Annie Doona, outgoing chair of the Irish Film Board (IFB), told TheJournal.ie this week that members of the board have looked into the training not just for the board but for the wider industry.

It comes after the IFB announced last year that it was to take major steps to address gender imbalance in Irish filmmaking, which came in the wake of the Waking the Feminists movement within the theatre industry. 

This week, Doona said that thanks to the board’s efforts there has been an increase in applications from female writers, directors and producers – but that progress has been “too slow”. She made the comments at the launch of the board’s 2017 slate of films.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Doona explained more about the unconscious bias training.

“We have talked a lot in the board – which is 50/50 male and female – we’ve talked a lot about unconscious bias and [Deputy Chief Executive] Teresa McGrane in particular has been talking to companies who deliver unconscious bias training and saying could we get those guys in to work not only with the film board, but with the industry.”

The University of Warwick describes unconscious bias as:

…a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.

In December 2015, the IFB launched a six-point plan on gender equality. It noted that from 2010 – 2015, figures show that:

  • 16% of production funding applications came from projects with female writers attached
  • 14% came from projects with female directors attached
  • 36% came from projects with female producers attached.

For projects which were completed productions in the same period:

  • 21% had a female writer attached
  • 18% had a female director attached
  • 55% had a female producer attached.

The board set itself the target of achieving 50/50 gender parity in funding over the next three years. In an effort to achieve this, it said it would be engaging with production companies about the target and also with organisations who provide training on the issue. Doona described this as a “hugely ambitious” target, noting that in Sweden it took 10 years to reach such a target.

“We wanted to say to people we are really serious about this, we want to achieve it,” said Doona. She said that figures will be published shortly that will demonstrate an increase in the number of women submitting applications for funding for films since the plan was put into place.

Doona also said that diversity goes beyond gender.

Because we don’t have a lot of stories about Travellers, we don’t have a lot of stories about the black experience in Ireland, so really it’s to raise that whole idea of diversity and how those stories need to be central to the Irish film industry.

Also speaking at the launch was producer Rebecca O’Flanagan – of The Stag and Handsome Devil – who said that in her own company, they had to reassess the gender balance of the projects they worked on.

This involved “interrogating the fact that we actually had an incredibly bad track record in terms of the women writers and directors we were working with”.

She said that this hadn’t been intentional, but was “something we had perhaps been able to self-justify with ‘well, this is just the talent coming in our direction”. O’Flanagan said that this is something that they have become a lot more proactive about, and they have a number of scripts they are now developing with female writers.

“It’s not a tokenistic thing,” she added. “These were people who are incredibly talented.
But it did take us approaching them because I do think we still have to get over the cultural thing that I think women are less likely to just put themselves forward and approach producers and say ‘this is a story that I am really passionate about telling’.”

She added that “those things take a long time, scripts take a long time to develop” but that she hopes she will be able to speak about progress in the area next year.

“It’s really good to hear people like Rebecca saying it made them say ‘oh my gosh do we have equal amounts, what are we doing about this’,” said Doona of the impact of the IFB’s plan.

Building confidence 

Doona said that from her work at the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Techonglogy (IADT) and with young students, she has learned “you’ve almost got to start right at the beginning with the confidence building”.

“So it’s about role models, it’s about developing confidence, but it’s also about the structural factor, it’s about getting the studios and it’s good to hear people saying they’re doing that now, getting the production companies to think really carefully about it,” she said.

Doona said that talented women are out there, but – echoing O’Flanagan’s points – “they need to be approached, they need to be recognised and we need to invest in them”.

So it’s starting very young with education and training, but it’s also about saying to the producers, writers and existing directors to go out and find that talent because it is there.

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Awareness in Irish schools 

For Doona, awareness starts young. In her work with secondary school students, she discovered that students found their careers teachers didn’t even know where to direct them for training in the film industry.

“When they say they want to do film [the teachers] say ‘oh, go and do film studies’, and when they say ‘no, I want to be a producer or an editor’, they don’t understand that well,” she said.

There’s some work to be done to raise that awareness of the huge amount of jobs in the film industry with career guidance teachers, with teachers in school.

She said that young girls also said that they have less confidence in dealing with the kit and equipment.

“‘The guys take the kit’ is what they say, so that’s about staff making sure that they get equal access to the kit and it’s about mentoring those young women and encouraging them to take that role,” said Doona.

She also said that boosting young women’s confidence in their abilities was a major part of progress – and includes taking their cues from how their male counterparts behave.

“They are aware themselves that when the guys leave the guys will say ‘I’ve set up a production company’, which probably means they have a laptop in the corner of their bedroom, and the women are more likely to say ‘well I’m thinking about’ or ‘I’m going into’. So they are aware now they have to big it up, they have to say ‘yes, I am going to be a producer, yes I am working on this’. Don’t lie, but big it up.”

Ireland has “taken a good stand” on the issue, according to Doona, but she hopes that “whatever new board comes in in a month or two’s time that they will pick up the gender agenda and run with it as well.”

If not, the planning and work the outgoing board has put into the gender issue may fall by the wayside.

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