The Directors Guild of America says networks and studios are to blame for the "deplorable" dearth of female directors in Hollywood, following a call by the American Civil Liberties Union for an investigation into the industry's "systemic failure" to hire female directors.
The DGA released a statement late Tuesday after the ACLU of Southern California and the national ACLU Women's Rights Project announced earlier they had sent letters to federal and state employment officials to call attention to "dramatic disparities" in the hiring of women as film and television directors.
The ACLU cites statistical evidence from various studies and anecdotal accounts from more than 50 female directors.
"Hearing such an outcry about it, and when it's backed up with statistics, it's a pretty solid sign there's discrimination going on," Ariela Migdal, a senior attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project, said in an interview Tuesday.
The DGA, which represents directors of most network and studio productions, said it is "a long-standing advocate pressuring the industry to do the right thing, which is to change their hiring practices and hire more women and minority directors."
"There are few issues to which the DGA is more committed than improving employment opportunities for women and minority directors," the group's statement said.
Fewer women are working as directors today than two decades ago, according to the ACLU. It cites research showing women represented only 7 percent of directors on the 250 top-grossing movies last year. That is 2 percentage points lower than in 1998.
A recent study commissioned by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film and conducted by researchers at USC shows women have comprised fewer than 5 percent of directors of top films during the past two decades. But about half of film-school students are female.
In its letter to the federal equal employment commission, which previously investigated gender discrimination in entertainment in the 1960s and '70s, the ACLU writes: "Decades have passed and gender disparities remain as stark as they were in the 1970s."
"Our hope is that the involvement of the civil rights agencies and calling it what it is - a civil rights issue - will lead to concrete solutions," Migdal said.
Reports over the past decade about the lack of opportunities for women in Hollywood haven't had much impact yet.
A director's gender matters because it influences what's seen on screen, said Melissa Silverstein, founder of Women and Hollywood, which advocates for gender parity in entertainment. Movies directed or written by women are 10 times more likely to show a female protagonist than those written and directed by men, she said.
"When we don't see women reflected behind the scenes and on the screen, it basically tells us that we don't count," she said. "I want to live in a world where a little girl can dream of being a hero just as much as a little boy can because she sees multiple examples of heroic women. ... We need examples of heroic women making changes in our lives so boys and girls can see that it's not just a boy thing."
Kathryn Bigelow, the only woman to ever win the DGA's top honor and the best director Oscar, told Time magazine that gender discrimination "stigmatizes" the entertainment industry.
"Hollywood is supposedly a community of forward-thinking and progressive people, yet this horrific situation for women directors persists," she said. "Change is essential. Gender neutral hiring is essential."
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Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.