As Canada plays host to some of Hollywood’s biggest stars at the Toronto International Film Festival, a new study reveals a significant employment gap between male and female directors in Canada’s film and television industries.

The report, penned by Australia-based researcher and former Canadian film worker Amanda Coles, poses serious questions about the culture behind Canada’s screen industry, where at least 84 per cent of all directorial work goes to men.

“The divide is a substantial one, and it’s an important one,” Coles, who lectures at the University of Melbourne’s arts and cultural management program, told CTV News Channel on Tuesday.

“We have a situation in the Canadian-based screen production industry where the majority of the stories being told on our screens are being told by a fraction of the population.”

The report goes beyond the statistics to analyze the culture of Canada’s film industry. Coles’ report included testimony from several women directors who recounted some of the barriers they’ve faced.

“Somebody said that a woman director directed an episode … Didn’t go very well and the word from above was, ‘Yeah, we tried hiring a woman and it didn’t work out.’ It’s like, ‘We tried hiring a person and it didn’t work out, so we’re not hiring people anymore,’” said one director, who remained anonymous.

Women in film face a series of challenges, Coles writes, including the stereotype that male directors are “visionary” while female directors are “demanding and difficult.” Women also reported feeling that they had to work harder and perform at a higher standard, and that earning professional recognition for their work was often a challenge.

Quantifying the gap

The report revealed a series of alarming figures that show a serious lack of women in directorial roles, including:

  • Out of 76 television episodes from seven different major U.S. series shot in Canada, only four episodes were shot by women.
  • 18 per cent of independent narrative films at the Sundance Festival were directed by women
  • Just 4.1 per cent of all top-grossing films in 2015 were directed by women

Call for action

After outlining the problem, Coles attempts to shatter a few myths that haunt women directors. She writes that adopting gender balance would be better for the industry on a commercial level because there would be more stories that reflect Canada’s diverse population.

“The paradox of this is that there is no evidence to support gender discrimination as an effective risk management strategy,” she said.

The report also suggests that federal leaders and policy-makers should stand up and make “the first bold step towards establishing gender equality as an industry priority.”

“This needs to be taken up as a political issue, as a socio-cultural issue,” Coles said.

Academy Award-winning actor Jennifer Lawrence made headlines last fall when she penned an open letter on Lenny Letter, an online publication started by actor-writer-director Lena Dunham, titled “Why Do I Make Less Than My Male Co-Stars?”

Asked whether leading women need to take the charge in addressing the gender gap among directors, Coles said no.

“The people who need to take the lead on this are people who sit in positions of authority and power. That includes the engagers, the producers, the financers, the distributors,” she said. “These are the places where actual change needs to happen.”

Positive signs

Coles’ call for change was echoed by Sharon McGowan, a director with Vancouver-based non-profit Women in Film and Television Vancouver.

“It’s time for action, and I’d really like to see a lot more concrete action being taken by all of our government agencies and our cultural agencies,” McGowan said.

She pointed to several instances where film industry leaders have spoken out and taken action. Earlier this week, Canadian producer-director Roger Frappier addressed the difficulties facing women-run films as he accepted the Canadian Media Producers Association’s (CMPA) Established Producer Award.

The National Film Board, a significant source of funding for Canadian productions, announced in March that it would introduce a gender-parity initiative to give 50 per cent of all funding to women directors.

“This is a civil rights issue, it is a human rights issue,” McGowan said.

Coles says the reception to her report so far has been “superb,” and that the industry appears to be paying attention to the problem.

“The (film) unions as well as other industry advocates have been total champions in moving this issue into the political agenda,” she said.