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Barbara Kellerman
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Barbara Kellerman

Barbara Kellerman is on the faculty of at the Harvard Kennedy School and the author, most recently, of Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, and Why It Matters and Followership: How Followers are Creating Change and Changing Leaders.

Hollywood's female 'outlier'

Malcolm Gladwell describes "outlier" as a scientific term for "things or phenomena that lie outside normal experience." Such is Kathryn Bigelow who, come Sunday night, could well be the first woman ever to win an Academy Award for Best Director, in this case for her movie "The Hurt Locker."

It's not that Hollywood dislikes women. It does not: films and females have gone together since the inception of the movie business. It's just that even now, a decade into the 21st century, Hollywood wants women in front of the camera rather than behind it.

Like every other industry in America the movie industry has a hierarchy, where some are leaders and some followers. And, like every other industry in America, the leaders tend to be men and the followers women. Of course some industries are more afflicted by this inequity than others -- and the film industry is one of them.

The number of women who have been at the highest ranks of all aspects of the movie business is dismally low. Moreover in the industry the director, more than any other single individual, is considered the "auteur," the creator, the leader, or "director" of the project at hand. Yet this is the company from which women have been excluded nearly entirely. Apparently, women are not considered strong and safe enough to be charged with being in charge of making a film.

Consider the numbers. Best Director Awards have been bestowed for over 80 years. The process has generated some 400 nominations -- of which exactly four, including Bigelow, have been women. (Lina Wertmueller was nominated for Best Director in 1976 for "Seven Beauties," Jane Campion in 1993 for "The Piano," and Sophia Coppola in 2003 for "Lost in Translation.")

Membership in the Directors Guild of America (DGA) mirrors this exclusivity. To be sure, of its current total membership (about 14,000), 23% are women. But, like so many other organizations in America, once you move up the hierarchy, the number of women declines precipitously. Of the approximately 8,500 classified as "directors," only about 13% are women, and there is just one woman (Betty Thomas) among the top 10 elected positions (president, vice-presidents, and secretary-treasurers) of the DGA's National Board.

In this context, Bigelow's success is all the more stunning. But it would be disingenuous not to point out her decades-long relationship to James Cameron, the guru behind The Hurt Locker's most obvious competitor, Avatar, and one of Hollywood's all time heavyweights.

The fact that they were married for a couple of years a couple of decades ago has no apparent bearing on Bigelow's emergence as a star director in her own right. But the fact that for years Cameron has been her mentor, as well as her apparently unwavering collaborator and champion, does. It's anyone guess whether Bigelow could have made it so far on her own, notwithstanding her talent and drive.

What is clear is that having a powerful male mentor in a climate inhospitable to women does not hurt in Hollywood, or for that matter anywhere else. From my experience at the Harvard Kennedy School teaching a class on Women and Leadership, there is little that women consider as important as having a mentor, male or female, willing, eager even, to lend a hand, providing support and validation as they make the hard climb to the top.

NOTE: This column was co-authored with Molly Byrne, who earned a BA at Boston University and then she worked at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles. She is currently at the Harvard Kennedy School pursing a Master in Public Policy.

By Barbara Kellerman

 |  March 4, 2010; 2:45 PM ET
Category:  Pop culture Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Very few of the most respected artists (I mean painters) throughout history have been women. This may not be due to discrimination.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Posted by: douglaslbarber | March 7, 2010 10:08 PM
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I loved The Hurt Locker. It will become the essential war movie of the Iraq conflict. But I find it sad that it took a violent movie to propel a woman to a possible Oscar for best director.

Women have been making wonderful movies bu unless the movie is about an acceptable male topic they are shut out.

Posted by: arancia12 | March 7, 2010 1:05 PM
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I agree with SMCRAGE - no one achieves anything significant without the help of others.

Posted by: elainefrank1 | March 7, 2010 12:03 PM
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Research also documents that it is much easier for men to have mentors than women--Not only are there more men to serve as mentors (a lack of senior women), but they are much more comfortable mentoring those like them (i.e., white males), thus perpetuating the system.
Additionally, women's roles in Hollywood are based on physical attractiveness; it is rare for an "old" or "unattractive" woman to gain the upper echelons in front of or behind the camera.

Posted by: Marywexler38 | March 7, 2010 10:42 AM
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In my personal experience, when you select a person for an office or an award based on your desire to see the first [Native American/African American/Woman/Gay Lesbian Transgender/Human-Chipmunk clone] rather than on the basis of their work alone, you are likely to live long enough to have regrets.

Posted by: douglaslbarber | March 6, 2010 11:41 PM
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And I'M amazed by people who haven't seen the movie but make judgments about it, and those who haven't been to Iraq but condemn the movie for not being true to the situation in Iraq. I saw the movie last evening, and thought it amazingly well directed and edited. Frankly, I think it would be good to see the first woman to receive a directing Oscar do so for a film that is not stereotypically a "woman's movie" or a "chick flick."

Posted by: RonGeatz | March 6, 2010 10:21 PM
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I wish you could delete the following sentence from your column:

"It's anyone guess whether Bigelow could have made it so far on her own, notwithstanding her talent and drive."

Mentoring relationships are *vital* to developing and supporting successful professionals, across fields and across genders. With that sentence, you take something that most professionals want and that most successful professionals have benefited from, and you use it to support the stereotypes against women that you are trying to argue against. Suddenly, this is a woman who "made it" because she had a man behind her making sure it happened. No, this is a woman who has reached the pinnacle of her field with the help of a good mentor.

That's one reason that talent and drive matters--driven people succeed partially because they more assertively seek out mentors who can help and advise them (and talented people are more likely to be taken on by good mentors). Trying to "make it on your own" is a good way to make success more difficult. Why else do people talk so much about how the Old Boy's Network needs to open up to women?

I bet that if you asked James Cameron, one reason he is willing to mentor and champion others is because he had people helping him along, too. You should be praising both of them for doing what good professionals should do, not undermining Bigelow because of it.

Posted by: smcrage | March 6, 2010 1:40 PM
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The author makes a series of unsubstantiated claims about gender bias in movie industry management. More to the point, the under representation of women may relate primarily to self-selection. Supporters of gender and ethnic-based preference programs may acknowledge this point and suggest that these programs are needed to change the cultural context/mindset under which women and ethnic minorities make their career choices. Without debating the truth of this point, experience with these preference programs demonstrates that once turned on, they can never be turned off because such preference becomes the new norm. As to the academy awards, of course Kathyrn Bigelow will win best director. She probably did direct the best film this year. Nevertheless, one can be sure the academy has weighted such choice by the opportunity to achieve the same political correctness for which the author of this piece strives.

Posted by: tds15 | March 6, 2010 12:49 PM
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I was very disappointed by this movie. I've read many comments by Iraq vets who felt offended by the depictions of reckless behavior and disregard for one's and other soldier's safety. I have not been to Iraq or even in the military for that matter, but even I could completely sympathize with such criticism.

I am no expert in military matters, but I was particularly unimpressed by the way several operations were portrayed, in particular the whole sniper scene. I am baffled to say the least at the numerous comments by viewers that thought the movie "felt like the real deal." I thought it was far from that.

Academy: Fail.

Posted by: DeepClue | March 6, 2010 8:11 AM
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Posted by: tyetieygtfuyieyre | March 6, 2010 8:05 AM
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I saw Avatar (the chief competitor to the Hurt Locker). I thought Avatar was good, but hardly great. I have not seen Hurt Locker because I do not like movies with violence in them.

It bothers me that now we have a "chance to make history" by making a woman the winner of an Oscar. If you want to give it to a woman, you should have given it to Deepa Mehta whose movies are genuinely deep. That too would have made history, and then "having made history" we could go back to judging movies by quality rather than for political reasons.

Posted by: rohitcuny | March 6, 2010 7:41 AM
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