Where are all the women? It’s a question that comes up time and time again in conversation with animators and animation studios alike. According to advocacy group Women in Animation, 60% of animation students in the US and Europe are women, but the drop off rate as they move into industry is staggering, with only 20%–40% of professional roles held by women. But why exactly is there a lack of females in animation, and more constructively, what is the industry doing about it? To find out, we spoke to a variety of important voices in the sector, from educators and leading animation studios to female animators themselves (they do exist) about their experiences, and what actions are being taken to redress the balance.
Clearly one of the major barriers is the transition from education to career. Animation director and Bafta winner Nina Gantz says she saw an equal balance at school, and even on the indie film circuit, but when it came to the commercial world it became more male dominated. “It can be a bit ‘laddy’,” she says, “which could be why it’s less inviting for women to get into. I found it intimidating at the beginning.” Fellow animation director Anna Ginsburg says the same, referring to a set as being “like a boy’s club” with “mad, macho energy flying around.” Animation director Niki Lindroth von Bahr puts this in a wider context: “It is of course a matter of the total male domination in all powerful positions, that’s been going on forever.”
This brings up a major recurring theme in the conversations I had in putting this piece together: the issue of confidence, or rather women’s lack of. It is a common observation among my interviewees that women are present in production roles, yet not directorial roles nor technical roles. Kitty Turley, executive producer at Strange Beast, affirms this, explaining that in a typical animation studio, “men are the creative leads and women are the jobbing crew animators or producers. Women are there to facilitate and enable the creative voice and vision of men,” she says, “because self-doubt is the patriarchy’s most insidious weapon.” As women move from education to career, she says young women have “their more feminine qualities praised – nurturing, a willingness to please. It’s a restrictive pattern that upholds the status quo.” Strange Beast is the only animation production company in London with an even gender split director’s roster, and Kitty believes that wider change is on the horizon. “Now, it feels like the discourse has shifted to a more helpful and nuanced place; society is confronting subtle but equally destructive forms of misogyny and intersectionality too. We make a concerted effort to work with female talent, supporting them to develop their unique voice and bolster their egos.”
Niki Lindroth von Bahr: The Burden (Min Börda)
In an interview on the Lecture in Progress podcast, Creative Lives, Anna Ginsburg says that her upbringing by a “ballsy mother, a single parent, lesbian, militant feminist and lawyer,” has given her the confidence she feels is necessary to pursue a director’s role. “Almost all of the producers I’ve worked with have been women, and almost all of the directors have been men, that’s really not an exaggeration,” she continues. “As a female director on live-action shoots, when the call sheet is read out and they say ‘This is Anna, the director,’ there’s a moment of reeling [from the crew] because I’m a young woman. You’re often starting on the back foot, and you’re not yourself. You want to be more macho, speak louder or lower and make sure you’re not ‘screechy’. You start behaving in ways that lose you energy because you’re trying to be something you’re not.”
Niki shares a similar view on embedded societal behaviours, explaining that the traditional role of a director requires “being extremely stubborn in your artistic choices and feeling comfortable with having a team working only to carry out your vision, is directly contrary to how most women have been raised. [As a woman] you’re supposed to look after people, and not make yourself difficult. I think the main problem is the lack of faith in ourselves, that stems from centuries of oppression of women in general.” The good news, it seems, is once you’ve got your foot in the door, the experiences are generally more positive. “I’ve never felt questioned as a woman in my current position,” Niki says. “To me the big challenge is encouraging women to reach that position in the first place.” Likewise Nina Gantz says: “I’ve always felt that, in meetings, people have listened to me and put me on the same level as any other director in the room.”
Another issue, which also stems from upbringing, is the types of roles available in the industry. Rosanna Morley, creative coordinator at Blinkink, says that technical roles such as compositors, FX artists and Generalists are hugely male dominated, and that the imbalance can be put down to the way we, as a society, have historically pushed girls and boys towards different preferences. “It goes back to a time when boys were encouraged to like things such as technology and football, and girls to art and ballet dancing,” says Rosanna. “These projected expectations have possibly fed into later interests and career choices. Gender roles and expectations are becoming more fluid though, which is an exciting shift.”
Rosanna also thinks technological advancements, and social media, are making animation more accessible. “Things like Instagram, Vimeo, and the popularity of creating quick gifs have encouraged people to add movement to their work. Illustrators dabble in 2D animation – Cécile Dormeau is a great example – and photographers dabble in stop motion. This has started to open animation up to a wider group of people.” On a parallel subject, Natalie Busuttil, studio manager at Nexus, believes the wide gender divide in 3D animation is particularly due to its subject matter. “I think there is an idea as to what being a successful 3D artist involves, which errs towards sci-fi, fantasy and action films. For some women this is great, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I think we can do more to shatter this perception. Animation is a varied and multifaceted world – you don’t have to work on photorealistic alien horrors or the latest superhero action movie to be a 3D artist.”
This touches on a major factor in bringing women to the sector – representation in the films themselves. “For too long, a male dominated view of the world has been shared through film,” Niki says, which has become viewed as the norm. “It’s so important to get inside the minds of women, to share our experiences and world views.” Nina Gantz agrees: “A woman can bring a different outlook.” Milana Karaica, founder of animation studio Nerd Productions, speaks about the wider issue of women in media having a deep impact. “Growing up, I rarely saw myself reflected in the media in the animation industry or tech or advertising industries, for example. From a young age, you’re made to feel you can’t be like your male counterparts, and maybe you settle and aspire to something you deem more achievable. This topic became a huge debate in the studio [Nerd has a 50% female senior team] and most artists agreed they’ve never worked under a female director, some in over 20 years. As creatives, we should be embracing change and diversity, but it really needs to stem from the top.”
So, what is the industry doing about it?
Teal Triggs, associate dean at the RCA’s school of communication and current head of animation, is a vocal activist for the gender issues facing the animation industry, and tells us that animation, like many of the creative industries, faces deep rooted challenges in equal gender representation. Women make up the majority on animation courses, but the opposite is true in industry, and reasons for this “are historical and often reflect personal circumstances, but also suggest an urgent need to review current industry practices,” she says. “This may be in terms of examining the role of bias in interviewing practices, introducing robust mentoring schemes upon graduation, and raising awareness on gender and diversity in judging panels for awards and festivals. As educators, we need to work together with the animation industry to ensure women have equal opportunities to bring their unique voices, experiences and practices to animation and the creative industries.”
Niki Lindroth von Bahr has seen huge changes over the last few years, with the industry becoming more aware of the issue and taking action. This means more films by women directors being included in festivals, more female jury members, and a few star women such as Réka Bucsi and Kirsten Lepore, being acknowledged, “leading the way for other young talents,” she says. Anna Ginsburg echoes that role models are a key factor representing women in the industry. “I worked for Moth Collective [when starting out].. I’ve got a lot to thank them for, especially Margaux [Tsakiri-Scanatovits] as a wonderful woman in the industry. They showed me you don’t have to be cruel to be a successful person.”
Natalie Busuttil says that while, a few years ago, you may have only seen one or two women in an animation studio of 40 artists, she’s seen “a sharp increase” in that ratio. “Especially in character design, concept art and 2D animation, women are sometimes outnumbering men in many schools I’ve visited, and that’s being reflected in the work coming out of those schools, where sexuality and gender are subjects that are being explored more frequently than I’ve seen before.” One example she gives is Bacchus, a film directed a group of female students from The Animation Workshop in Viborg, Denmark, about a woman’s personal journey of self-discovery, which is garnering acclaim internationally.
Blinkink’s Rosanna Morley says the studio actively encourages schools and colleges to visit, and runs a work experience scheme. This, she says, aims to lay bare female animators the path to an animation career. Passion Pictures and Strange Beast is continuing to sign 50% female directors, and aims to have gender balanced crews where possible, while also working with the Creative Mentor Network to connect young women with industry. “Accomplished female commercial directors are a rare commodity that we’re searching for,” says Passion’s MD Debbie Crosscup.
“We need to endeavour to create an environment where animation and production is a valid career path for anyone. People [in the industry] are definitely more aware that there isn’t enough diversity, and companies are paying close attention to their recruitment to have a broader range of talent from all walks of life. For us, this helps us as storytellers. We become a more rounded company if we can authentically tell any story that comes in the door.” Kitty Turley also comments that initiatives like WIA, Animated Women and Free the Bid are shining the light on the subject, which we can only hope brings a new wave of women to the animation world.