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Women in Film: Gender Equality and Mental health

Canada’s Gender Equality Week is September 18th to 24th this year. It’s an opportunity to celebrate the achievements and contributions of women and to highlight the progress made in gender equality in Canada. Importantly, this week also serves the purpose of addressing the issues and gaps that persist in our country, and for us, in our entertainment industry.

Gender equality means that everyone should be treated equally regardless of their gender identity. Advancing gender equality benefits women, men, and gender non-binary individuals, and has a positive impact on the atmosphere and collegiality on set and in society.

Issues of gender equality in the film industry

While women’s participation and success in the motion picture industry has improved over the years, women are still facing bias and challenges in our sector. Have you asked the women colleagues you work with about their experience and how this might impact their mental health?

Claudia Raschke, a successful cinematographer who has worked on documentaries such as RGB, Fauci, and most recently, House of Hammer for Discovery+, said “Women in the film industry have to work twice as hard as any man does because you're working against that stigma. Can a woman do it? Does she have the stamina? Can she handle the stress, the camera technology, the software, the high budgets?" She adds “you can't make any mistakes because you're representing women in the industry. You have to be careful to set a good example. Because if you fail, it echoes, and potentially closes the door behind you."

The actor, director and producer, Becky Ngoma highlighted “I’ve seen actresses who are forced into relationships to get a role; women are being compromised in order to access funding especially where a man is in control. They want you to use your ‘bottom power’ [sexual attractiveness] even when you have the brains and capability to prove yourself worthy of that funding.”

These comments highlight the bullying and sexual harassment that disproportionately affect women working in this sector.

A 2019 survey found that 39% of women experienced sexual harassment at work while 43% of women reported being bullied. Exposure to bullying and harassment are significant risk factors for chronic stress, depression, and anxiety.

What does this mean for women working in the film industry?

Discrimination isn’t always that obvious and many women face microaggressions on a frequent basis. A microaggression is a subtle verbal or non-verbal behavior that has a harmful effect on a person – even if the culprit isn’t aware of it. Calling a female colleague ‘sweetheart’ or saying ‘don’t be so sensitive’ are potential microaggressions – they might be meant in a ‘nice way’ but they’re undermining. Many people brush them off or feel they’d be overreacting if they say something, but research shows that these behaviors have a detrimental effect on people’s mental health. Psychologists have called it ‘death by a thousand cuts’.

Diane Goodman, an educator, and activist, recommends responding to microaggressions in a way that allows the aggressor to understand the consequences of their behavior. She has written a list of statements that can be used, for example:

Ask for more clarification: “Could you say more about what you mean by that?” “How have you come to think that?”

Separate intent from impact: “I know you didn’t realize this, but when you __________ (comment/behavior), it was hurtful/offensive because___________. Instead, you could___________ (different language or behavior.)”

It’s about learning to draw boundaries and choosing self-care. Having the support of friends, colleagues, and allies means you can share your experiences and learn from each other. And that doesn’t only apply to dealing with microaggressions. Maintaining your mental health means you’re more able to deal with the pressures that are common to everyone working in the film industry.

Make time for self-care and relaxation, like spending time in nature, practicing yoga and meditation, or spending time with your loved ones. Journaling is another great strategy to release difficult emotions and to keep track of your actions, growth and progress. Working in an industry dominated by men can make you doubt yourself and your skills and you might feel like giving up sometimes. So for women, keeping in mind what you’re working towards and why it’s important to you is essential to staying motivated and resilient.

How can we work together?

Having gender equality on set and in society doesn’t only benefit women. Toxic masculine beliefs like ‘showing emotion makes you weak’, ‘men must provide’, or ‘men have to be strong’ - male gender bias - are also detrimental to men’s mental health. That means gender equality isn’t a women’s issue, it’s an issue that affects all people and society.

Gender Intelligence: Positive relationships between genders at work are good for productivity, creativity, and of course, for creating a harmonious atmosphere! Here are a few tips for being a good ally to women and gender diverse individuals:

Educate yourself: Understand the challenges they face in the workplace, at home, and outside.

Recognize your privilege: Don’t feel guilty or embarrassed but use your position to encourage positive change.

Ask questions and listen: You’re not expected to know everything but being genuinely interested and making an effort to challenge your own behavior goes a long way.

Be inclusive: Female and gender diverse colleagues can feel isolated and left-out in a male-dominated workplace so reaching out and including people can be helpful.

Challenge others: Directly or indirectly by interrupting or asking a reflective question (‘what do you mean by that?’).

Gender equality is sometimes perceived as meaning women should adapt to male-dominated professions by taking on male ways of working and behaving. But equality doesn’t mean everyone is the same; rather that everyone is treated with equal respect and feels equally valued.

Let’s work together to develop our mutual gender intelligence as we learn to appreciate the differences that exist between genders and how their unique approaches to communication, relationships, and conflict can produce better results in all areas of society and work. It’s about understanding each other, finding ways to collaborate, and solve problems. Equity should be celebrated – everyone has different strengths and talents to bring to the table and this can maximize the potential of any workplace!

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