Leading researcher brings big data to fight for gender equity in film industry

Deb Verhoeven will use new SSHRC funding to illuminate power structures and inform policies aimed at changing deep-rooted inequities.

Deb Verhoeven

Deb Verhoeven, Canada 150 Research Chair in Gender and Cultural Informatics, is taking an innovative, data-driven approach to looking at why gender inequity persists in film industries around the world. (Photo: Supplied; taken before COVID-19)

Can a complex social problem like gender inequity be fought by analyzing data? Professor Deb Verhoeven knows it can. The University of Alberta Canada 150 Research Chair in the Faculty of Arts is part of an international team recently awarded a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant to explore the issue in international film industries, where it’s a widespread and well-documented problem.

In the age of #MeToo and #timesup—movements standing up against sexual abuse and harassment—research like the GEP (Gender Equity Policy) Analysis project has never been more important, said Verhoeven, a leading scholar in the emerging field of gender and cultural informatics, a research area that combines digital technology, big data, cultural analytics and social justice. She’ll be using the latest big data and social network analysis methods to model and visualize the complex interrelationships of power structures. The goal is to provide information that can shape new policies the big-screen industry can use to change deep-seated, unfair types of behaviour.

Folio asked Verhoeven about the project.

Gender inequality is a widespread problem in the international film industry. What does that look like?

Gender gaps and inequality as well as systemic sexual exploitation are foundational to film industries around the globe; in fact, they’re the basis on which these industries were formed and continue to operate. Since the emergence of the cinema in Europe and North America in the late 19th century, the domination of a network of almost exclusively white men hasn’t wavered. The problem is, this persistence is rarely studied in detail. Instead, most academic research and industry policy has focused on challenging and changing the behaviour of “outsiders” seeking entry to the industry. Women for example, are encouraged to “lean in,” or undertake even more development training and so on. The evidence tells us these strategies seldom succeed at scale.

“Breaking this pernicious form of gatekeeping is critical.”

Deb Verhoeven

What knowledge gaps will your project’s new data-driven approach help to address?

We want to challenge the tenacious behaviours of dominant power brokers in the film industry. Our objective is to better understand how these defensive, closed networks so successfully consolidate their dominance. In particular, we’ll examine why so many policies designed to produce more equitable industries haven’t succeeded. So we’ll measure the variable impact different initiatives such as quotas, targets, training and development have had in three jurisdictions: Canada, the U.K. and Germany. Then we’ll conduct “what if” scenarios, modelling untested policies to see what their hypothetical impact might be.

How could the research reduce gender inequality in the film industry? 

Our project is “industry-facing,” and it involves substantial consultation with policy-makers, industry leaders and advocates for change. By working alongside these key stakeholders, we hope to find workable solutions for industry adoption. We also hope this approach can be a transferable model for producing change in many other sectors.

We are mindful that addressing gender inequality in the screen industries is pivotal to creating the conditions for change in many ways. Film and television productions set the parameters for the kinds of worlds we think are possible, and when those imaginative worlds are limited to the interests of a narrow demographic niche, they reinforce and legitimize other, already powerful hierarchies of social domination. Breaking this pernicious form of gatekeeping is critical. We need to open film industry networks so that everyone can aspire to live their lives as variously as possible.

What’s exciting about this project in terms of social innovation?

The film industry has, in recent years, become a battleground for a galvanized feminism—think of the #MeToo movement. This project bridges a traditional division between data that describes the extent of a problem and data that indicates where and how to intervene, and that’s exciting.

I believe the mathematical, the statistical and the quantitative are all pivotal to understanding the operations of contemporary power. But at the same time, we already have more than 100 years of data that tells us the film industry is not, and has never been, an equitable place for women. So we need to do more than just count. We need to make these industries, and the people who directly benefit from them, accountable through new forms of evidence and innovative analytic techniques. This kind of groundwork will underpin a revitalized feminist arsenal in the battle for inclusion.

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