The American Civil Liberties Union called on a federal civil rights agency Tuesday to open an investigation into what the ACLU called a "systemic failure" to hire female directors in the film and television industry.
In a letter sent to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the ACLU’s women's rights project and the group's Southern California chapter stated that sexist practices have led to the “widespread exclusion” of female directors in Hollywood.
"Women directors are subjected to discriminatory practices, including recruiting practices that exclude them, failure to hire qualified women directors based on overt sex stereotyping and implicit bias and the use of screening mechanisms that have the effect of shutting women out," the letter continued.
The organizations compiled statistical evidence of what they termed "dramatic disparities" in the hiring of women. The findings were bolstered by anecdotal accounts gathered from 50 female directors.
The ACLU said that among directors of the 250 top-grossing films of the year, the percentage who are women is lower today than it was two decades ago. Citing a study by the San Diego State University Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, the ACLU said that in 2014 women accounted for only 7 percent of those directors — 2 percentage points lower than in 1998.
"Women directors simply aren't getting a fair opportunity to succeed," said Ariela Migdal of the ACLU women's rights project.
And the groups said the problem is not confined to movies and extends to television. The ACLU said that among directors of 220 television shows analyzed by the Directors Guild of America in a 2014 diversity report, only 14 percent were women.
"The failure to hire women directors in film and television cannot be attributed to a lack of qualified or interested women," the ACLU letter read, adding that women were "well represented in prominent film schools," with the number of those focused on directing "roughly equal to the number of men."
The letter to the EEOC included an anecdotal account by "the former head of a major studio," who reportedly said, "For a woman to direct a movie in Hollywood, she has to go through so many layers of rejection by the powers that be — I suppose including myself — that it is harder to get to that point. So you can’t just create something. And I think there is a whole unconscious mountain ... I think the whole system is geared for [women] to fail."
Recent research by the University of Southern California's media, diversity and social change initiative found a general perception in Hollywood that stories by or about women are more niche than mainstream and therefore less profitable. A recent study by USC and the advocacy group Women in Film shows women account for fewer than 5 percent of directors of top films during the past two decades.
"Blatant and extreme gender inequality in this large and important industry is shameful and unacceptable," said Melissa Goodman, the director of the ACLU of Southern California's LGBTQ, gender and reproductive justice project.
The ACLU is calling on the EEOC to examine the hiring practices of major studios and networks and to identify those employers with the "most stark pattern and practice of failing to hire women for directing work."
"Decades have passed, and gender disparities remain as stark as they were in the 1970s," the letter read. "The EEOC should return its attention, investigatory powers and enforcement resources to these serious disparities."
The EEOC said in a statement that it had received the letter from the ACLU and are "carefully considering its contents."
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press