The Women Who are Changing Animation, One of Hollywood's Most Sexist Industries

Despite growing numbers of women studying and working in animation, creative leadership is still a man's world. Women In Animation is going to change that.

Women In Animation

Sexism in Hollywood is spoken about mostly in terms of on-camera roles and opportunities (or lack-thereof) to sit in a director’s chair, but its reach is just as pervasive below the line, where the bulk of the industry’s talented craftspeople work. Despite its often-cuddly image, the animation industry has a particularly stark inequality problem, which the nonprofit organization Women In Animation is working to change.

Founded over twenty years ago and relaunched in 2013, Women In Animation (WIA) is working to build a supportive, empowering ecosystem for women in the animation industry. WIA exists to give women the resources, opportunities, confidence and experience to fill the creative leadership roles within the industry that so often go to their male counterparts, hoping to bring about a major change in the landscape of creative leadership.

“Clearly women want to be in animation, want to study animation, love animation,” says WIA co-president Marge Dean, “and yet when you look at the statistics of the creative leadership in the industry, there are about 20% of the women who are doing the directing, storyboarding, designing, animating, and so there’s that disconnect. It needs to be rectified. The interest is expressed and yet they’re not going into those positions.”

A quick look at the numbers back her up. Though women make up the majority of major animation programs at universities across the country, those numbers aren’t reflected in the share of leadership roles held by women. Los Angeles Times’s Deborah Vankin found that in 2015, animation programs were made up of mostly female students.

“When CalArts debuted its character animation program in 1975, it had just two female students,” she wrote. “Today women make up 71% of its animation student body, and this month 16 women and 10 men graduated from the program. USC’s John C. Hench Division of Animation & Digital Arts is now 65% women. In addition, UCLA’s master’s program in animation is estimated to be 68% women, and Florida’s Ringling College of Art and Design’s computer animation program is nearly 70% women.”

But Vankin also found that the majority numbers of women in animation programs don’t translate to creative leadership roles like writing, directing and producing. According to the Animation Guild, women made up just 21% of the artists, writers and technicians employed under a guild contract in 2015.

Creative Leadership, Gender Parity and Storytelling From A Female Perspective

The major initiative driving WIA’s work is “50/50 by 2025,” or achieving gender equality in creative leadership within the next decade. Right now, the statistics make it clear that the industry’s in need of change, and that progress needs to happen on a several levels.

“There’s two sides of the kind of work that needs to happen to fix that,” says Dean. “One is the work with the studios and creating an awareness and shining a light on that talent pool…getting studios to embrace this idea of making the extra effort to go out and find the women who have the talent.”

WIA Co-President Marge Dean

Women In Animation

Hiring is a big part of the issue, and making female talent more visible to those who make hiring decisions is a key part of WIA’s work. But another key element lies in empowerment. Because the current system of creative leadership in Hollywood isn’t particularly supportive of women, it’s important that women are given the confidence to go after leadership positions.

“The other side of it is the work that we need to do with the women themselves to get them to believe in themselves and have confidence in their voice and in their vision,” says Dean.

Going after leadership positions and standing up for your work and your voice isn’t easy, but WIA’s working to make sure that women have the tools and the support they need to advocate for themselves when it comes to leadership roles.

“It takes a lot of courage to do that,” says Dean, “and so a lot of the work that we are doing is to support women to have the confidence to put their voice and their perspective out there and to go for these jobs.”

Supporting women and empowering them to go after creative leadership isn’t an issue that begins and ends with gender parity, though. The need for balance extends to the types of stories that studios and creators are putting out into the world, too. Stories have the power to inspire and to change lives. Making sure that the voices and perspectives behind those stories is varied is of vital importance.

“Having women in creative leadership will help tell stories that resonate with everybody and that will be universal and well-received,” says Ann Le Cam, Senior Vice President of Production at Walt Disney Animation Studios and member of WIA’s Advisory Board.

“That is as much the case in our studio,” says Le Cam, “where we make feature films where we look for that creative storytelling from a female perspective as much as from a male perspective — and I think in television also, having show leaders that are female and telling perhaps a little bit different stories that will bring to the younger girls in the world a message about what women can become and what they can be that might be slightly different than what they have seen so far.”

Ann Le Cam, Walt Disney Animation Studios Senior Vice President of Production, Member of Advisory Board for WIA

Women In Animation

WIA’s Programming And Opportunities

A big part of WIA’s work stems from the organization’s programming. With panels, networking events, workshops, big studio events for showcasing and talking about the work of group members, and professional development groups like the Voice Over and Write Groups, WIA provides a wealth of opportunities for women in all stages of their careers.

Even its Mentorship Program, which one might think is geared towards those in the early stages of their careers, is created with the intention of giving women at all levels the chance to learn from one another. It’s a place where those just starting in the industry can learn more about writing, directing or animating, but WIA co-president Kristy Scanlan tells us that very recently, an experienced director took advantage of the Mentorship Program to learn more about the work behind creating a show.

WIA Co-President Kristy Scanlan

Women In Animation

“We’re really trying to cover a wide range,” says Scanlan. “We believe that mentoring occurs at all levels and we want to encourage women to help other women to expand and grow, and we want to encourage men to mentor women to help them expand and grow because we’re not going to be able to accomplish our goals without the help of supportive men who support women.”

Another important aspect of WIA’s work is the Legacy Project, which is focused on creating a better understanding and record of the important parts that women have played in the history of animation.

Women have long been a pivotal part of the animation workforce, but from the early days of animation, they were limited to being inkers and painters who put in a tremendous amount of work behind the scenes. Because of that, their names may not be familiar to us, but many of animation’s great successes stand on the foundation of their work.

For decades, women in animation have been ignored, written out of their own history and forgotten. There are no books on women in animation, and information on the influential women who helped shape and innovate the art form and some of its most recognizable characters is difficult to come by.

“The whole program is focused around the fact that there actually have been a lot of women who’ve been key players in animation and they somehow seem to get forgotten, says Dean. “Either written out of the history books or fall by the wayside. So we think it’s really critical, especially in this time period where we’re supporting a lot of women to grow into these leadership roles, that they get recognized for what they are doing and become visible and get recorded in the history books.”

What���s Next For WIA

Having recently secured its first corporate sponsorship from Walt Disney Animation Studios, things are bound to get bigger and better for WIA in the near future. Having support in the form of financial backing opens a number of doors that may have otherwise been closed as a result of limited funds, and now WIA will be able to build on the strong foundation its laid with volunteer effort to create more opportunities for members with added resources.

It’s not just financial support that Disney’s been able to provide, though. Time, facilities and talent for panels like the recent Zootopia panel with the female leadership and creators behind the film are all part of Disney’s investment in the work that WIA is doing.

Women In Animation

Just as importantly, Disney’s involvement has the power to put even more momentum behind this movement for change that needs to take place across the entire industry. Disney is the first studio to make the relationship official, but WIAs work is beneficial for all studios because it gives them access to a talent pool that exists outside of what might’ve once been a very narrow field of view.

“At Disney Animation Studios we feel strongly about diversity and inclusion and want to make sure that we do the best that we can to have all of these voices heard within our studio,” says Le Cam. “Having an organization like WIA for us is instrumental because its broader than just our studio, it’s industry-wide.”

Initiatives like the Voice Over and Write groups are deeply member-driven, and WIA’s membership base is growing as the strength of its work increases. When it relaunched in the fall 2013, WIA had just 120 members. Now, less than three years later, 1,400 active members have joined its ranks.

Theres still plenty of work to be done on the road to 50/50 by 2025, but it’s clear that WIA’s rapidly gaining momentum. Transformation is already taking hold, and the strength of WIA’s members, its programs, and its enduring mission make one thing clear: Change is coming, and it’s coming at the hands of Women In Animation.