Since the early 1900s, March 8 has been set aside as a day to recognize and celebrate the achievements of women across the globe. Here in Vancouver, the day is a reminder of how far gender equality has come, and how far it still needs to go.
“Since I was in my 20s, International Women’s Day has meant so much,” says Peggy Thompson, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia and a board member of Women in Film and Television Vancouver. “It means equal pay for equal work. It means gender equality. It means change.”
Near the beginning of the 20th century great unrest and critical debates were occurring amongst women. Women’s oppression and inequality was becoming prominent and women became more vocal and involved in demanding change.
In 1910, Clara Zetkin, the leader of the “Women’s Office” for the Social Democratic Party in Germany, introduced the idea of an International Women’s day.
Despite success in empowering women, numerous issues still exist, ranging from the cultural and political to the economic. In today’s society, as media influence continues to grow and, with the advance of technology, the roles of women in the media are in the spotlight. From talk shows to entertainment shows and news reporting, the representation of women in these industries continues to be distorted.
Since the 1960s, the notion that “it matters who makes it” has been prominent in the minds of feminists across the globe, and especially here in Canada. Websites like the Media Awareness Network say television, film, broadcast, and popular magazines are full of images of women and girls who are predominately white, desperately thin, and covered in cosmetics. The femme fatal, the supermom, the sex kitten, and the nasty corporate climber are all stereotypes, which is a product of the lack of female presence behind the scenes.
Chantelle Krish, the advocacy and public relations manager of YWCA Metro Vancouver, explains that the main issue lies at the top.
“When we look at the number of women in senior leadership positions, we still see a discrepancy between women and men in these roles” says Krish. “Part of the reason for this discrepancy are barriers that hold women back from developing their careers. For example, a lack of role models, exclusion from informal networks and not having a sponsor in upper management can all contribute to this imbalance,” she explains.
In a recent study from the International Federation of Journalists, 28 per cent of Canadian newspaper journalists and 37 per cent of television journalists are women.
According to Telefilm Canada, women receive more training than men in the Canadian film industry, yet they work on lower budget films and have less access to public funds than their male counterparts. Women are more frequent moviegoers than men, yet comprise just 15 per cent of all directors, executive producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors.
Thompson says this is evident in key nominations in industry awards like the Genies and the Geminis where the percentage for women nominees is hovering between 17 and 26 per cent. She says studies are showing that approximately 45 to 49 per cent of all film students are women.
“In peer reviewed juries such as the Canada Council and BC Arts Council,” says Thompson, “women receive approximately 52 per cent of funding, the same as the general population ratio. Film and television in this country are lagging in terms of equality for women.”
In addition to being under-represented in positions of authority, women also seem to be under-utilized in covering the subjects considered most important. For example, in broadcast media, topics such as politics, economy, and social trends tend to usually be subjects which are covered by men. This exclusion of the female voice creates a skewed perspective, and an incomplete one.
This lack in delivering an equal point of view, says Krish, is more than just about freedom of opportunity, but also concerns health and safety.
“The key issue the YWCA is concerned about is hyper-sexualization,” says Krish. “Whether it is in magazines, film, online videos, television programs, or even the news, women are constantly being sexualized. Research shows that the sexualization of women not only contributes to decreased self-esteem and increased mental health issues, but it also has been linked to increased societal tolerance of violence.”
Apart from the direct psychological and physical damage that this sexualization causes, it also has a massive influence on today’s youth.
The American Psychological Association came out with a recent report that shows girls as young as four and five years old are wearing clothing styles such as push-up bras, thongs, mini skirts and other adult type outfits. This is a direct product of what they are exposed to in the media, and as it stands now, the ones making the decisions are rarely women.
“The Canadian film and television industry is heavily supported through government funding,” says Thompson. “To have such a gender imbalance behind the screen doesn’t adhere to government policies such as those of Heritage Canada. As an educator I find the situation disturbing.”
As International Women’s Day approaches, these staggering statistics can be discouraging.
The fact of the matter is, although these issues continue to resurface year after year, progress is being made. The march to equality for women in media has never been a steady journey, serving up a mix of both strides forward and setbacks. For example, in the 1920s, more women were directing movies than in the 1950s. One can only look towards the future and strive to make it better than the past.
In fact, according to Professor Anna Carastathis, a member of the Women’s and Gender Studies department at UBC, gender equality is only the beginning.
Carastathis says that there needs to be more questions asked, and deeper analysis applied to gender as a system of power.
“Gender equality may even be a contradiction in terms, in so far as gender is a structure of inequality. I support pay equity, universal suffrage, equality before the law, and equal protection under the law, but gender equality is by no means my feminist utopia.”
Optimism is the key ingredient for success when faced with the trials and tribulations that women encounter today and into the future,
“As a young woman in the entertainment industry, I feel very grateful,” says Brittany Klassen, a recent graduate of The Art Institute of Vancouver and now an aspiring film producer.
“I look at all the up-and-coming Kathryn Bigelows and Sophia Coppolas of the world, and I see a bright future for women in media and entertainment. As for myself, I have been given a great education and the skills to harness and become who I want to be. It’s true, things could be better, but all we can do is look ahead,” she says.