On International Women’s Day, we asked women from a number of top VFX facilities about the factors behind the industry’s gender imbalance, and what’s being done to address them
It’s no secret that VFX is a male-dominated industry. Just take a look at this year’s Visual Effects Society Awards – there are many all-male teams, and few teams with more than one woman. Like most STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) industries, fewer women enter the VFX profession to begin with, and the ones that do have a tendency to leave.
Fortunately, there is a growing recognition that everyone benefits when workplaces are more diverse, so there is a concerted effort within the VFX industry to attract more women and other minorities. Part of that effort involves creating a greater understanding of how we’ve ended up here.
Hannah Cook, Director of Operations at beloFX, believes that societal bias that girls encounter at school level tends to steer them away from certain interests and careers. “I think there are equal opportunities offered at entry level,” she says. “However, there’s definitely some pre-existing bias ingrained at school level which impacts the number of girls ever looking at VFX as a career option. There’s still a lack of women pursuing STEM subjects and a general perception that they aren’t as technically-minded; this steers them away from VFX as a career path. Schools and universities need to continue to work hard to encourage more women into STEM programmes. In turn, this will help to lead a larger number of women to explore careers like VFX.
“I think the greater biases come later. We see this with such a high number of women dropping out of the VFX industry or deciding not to pursue supervision roles. The stats from a recent WIA report really highlighted this, with women receiving 21.6% of the VFX credits yet just 3.5% of CG Supes being female and 2.9% of VFX Supervisors.”
beloFX is a new facility founded at the end of 2021 by a team of former senior leaders at DNEG, so they have had the opportunity to design their company around principles that are important to them, such as diversity and work-life balance. Crucially, they have embraced remote working from the get-go – which makes flexible and part-time working easier for everyone.
“As a start-up, we made it a priority to build a diverse team from the beginning,” says Hannah. “We have a significant number of women in leadership roles driving our core values as a business and impacting the way we source, hire and support employees.
“We are fully committed to remote working. We’ve embraced flexible hours and are supporting part-time working for all employees. We are really proud that our Canadian team is currently 52% female and that a number of mothers have chosen to come and join us for their return to work.
“Many of our team are parents and quite a few have been in the position of returning to work after maternity leave in the past so we understand this can be really daunting. We’ve chosen to be as flexible as possible to support this transition. Part of our mission is to provide an environment where staff can enjoy a great career alongside a full life outside of work and not feel they have to choose between one or the other.”
Fi Kilroe, Joint Managing Director/EP at Freefolk, agrees that school-level bias is part of the problem. “VFX is seen very much as a male job role when it is introduced to students, and not having women in teams gives an impression that it’s not a job for women as there is no-one for them to relate to,” she says. Fi notes that there is not enough awareness in general of VFX as a career option, and that at entry level, there is still a predominance of male runners. “Even when female runners are employed, they are encouraged to go via production rather than the operator route,” she says.
Once inside the industry, there are factors that can make it harder for women to stay. “It’s a very male-dominated culture in the operator side of things, which is off-putting.” For those that do stay, it can be hard to return after having a child. “Having to come back in at a lower level or not being able to do part-time are barriers to re-entry,” she says. “More understanding of the difficulty in returning to work is needed, as well as flexible working, good maternity pay, and paternity leave.”
For Fi, casting a wider net is key to encouraging women and other minorities into the industry. “We shouldn’t just look at people with the perfect reel, but also people who have a lot of potential and maybe haven’t been given the same opportunities,” she says.
Freefolk has a number of initiatives that encourage women to have long careers at the company, including the Futurefolk internship scheme, an apprenticeship scheme and a Return to Work scheme for mothers.
There are many initiatives that help women and other minorities to enter the industry. Annie Gordon, Head of Studio VFX at Ghost VFX UK, emphasises how important it is that VFX facilities take part in them. “At Ghost VFX UK, part of Streamland Media, we play an active role within industry initiatives that pursue inclusion, diversity and gender equality; these include ACCESS:VFX and Animated Women UK.
“Our sister company, The Farm Group, part of Streamland Media, is also actively involved in community engagement.” The company has recently participated in the MAMA Youth Project, which creates and delivers training courses for underrepresented young people to help them enter the digital and broadcast media industries, and the Government-run Kickstart Scheme for young people on universal credit.
Annie also notes how valuable the rise of hybrid working is for women. “It gives flexibility for women with parental commitments to work from home and in the VFX studio around less rigid working hours,” she says.
Joanna Manawa, Head of Crew Management, MPC, says that visibility is key. “Women need to see other women in positions of creative leadership in their industry so that there is someone they can aspire to be like, and they can see that it’s achievable.”
She’s proud of the culture at MPC. “We already have strong women in leadership. Our team have the respect to play as equals. We have a visible and positive female presence who know they are empowered to speak and give feedback alongside receiving it for their growth and development,” she says.
“Internally, we’re working on how we invest in our team to grow future leaders. Externally, we need to showcase these leaders and increase our presence in the media around our company and the success and calibre of our female talent.”
Joanna believes that an attitude change with regard to flexible and part-time working is needed to make it easier for women to return to work after having a baby, and to accommodate anyone who wants to work a different pattern.
“We need to change the narrative around working weeks that are not 40-hour+ weeks. Why are we still using the language ‘full time’? Why can’t we have 40-hour week workers, 32-hour week workers, and 24-hour week workers? In our team we have mums and dads who work different patterns. We have people who are not parents who work different patterns to allow them to pursue other creative work. We have our Core Hours Promise [allowing people to start work anytime before 10am] which is available to everyone, allowing for a more flexible approach to a 40-hour week. It requires a commitment from the supervision teams, and from the artists themselves – but we do see that it does work.
“Support for a flexible working environment is important, whilst maintaining a strong and collaborative creative experience for our teams, and making work a safe environment to ‘be a parent’ in. We want to celebrate and openly chat about the journeys our new parents are embarking on.”
Klaudija Cermak, VFX Compositing Lecturer at Escape Studios, sees the difficulty of returning to work after having a child as the main reason for the industry’s gender imbalance. “It is still a male dominated industry because when people decide to start a family, traditionally women stay at home. This is often because men are paid more. So there is a deep rooted inequality in a wider society that impacts on VFX industry too. When women return to work after a break in a career they are unable to progress at the same pace as male counterparts as they need to retain some ‘work – life (family) balance’ so often can’t work the extra unpaid hours the industry requires and pay childcare at the same time.”
Klaudija believes that barriers to entering the industry aren’t the issue for women. “The barriers arise if there is a fear of future pregnancy or once you have a child. I went to an interesting interview after I had a child in which the interviewer asked me ‘So what would you do if your child had an accident? Would you just rush off and leave the clients behind?’ I didn’t work there!”
In addition to flexible working, job share initiatives in which a role is split between two artists could make returning to work easier for women.
Jessica Teach, VP of Operations at Industrial Light & Magic, believes that the industry’s gender imbalance can in part be explained by stereotypes, and that a change in mindset can overcome this problem.
“There are many factors at work,” she says. “Some of it has to do with stereotypes and biases that we all navigate – the old assumptions that women are more organised and better communicators, and that men are more creative and stronger in terms of technology and problem solving for instance. While those stereotypes are outdated, the perceptions live on, and so women get pushed in a specific direction in terms of career growth. We can counter this by seeing the value of ALL the skillsets people bring to their role, regardless of gender, and by not assuming that only people with one set of very rigidly defined skills can succeed. Adopting this open mindset helps challenge those assumptions – at ILM we have found the more diverse our team is, the more creative solutions arise.”
Finding ways for parents to work in an industry that’s notorious for its long hours is also important for retaining women. “There are many ways to tackle this from being more intentional when it comes to crewing to proactively manage anticipated overtime, to job sharing and thinking very carefully about what the core responsibilities of a leader are and adding more leads and up and comers to help our supervisors divide and conquer. We have the benefit of mentorship programs across our studios that help our teams grow with confidence and support and that also help us create a deeper bench of leaders,” says Jessica.
We also need to make the VFX industry more visible in general to young people when they are choosing their careers. “We need young girls of all races and ethnicities to be exposed to and take an interest in STEM and STEAM classes – we need to inspire kids with the myriad of roles that exist in VFX – creative and artistic roles – software programming – editorial – hardware engineering – project management and on and on. It is such an exciting industry and we need more folks to see what we do! We have a very robust outreach program at ILM and in all five of our studios, we are actively engaged in this work with some really great results!
“We participate in conferences like Grace Hopper, AfroTech, and Lesbians Who Tech, as well as many others, to reach as many folks as we can. This work takes a very large team, so we engage our recruiters, our department leaders and managers and our employees who want to develop better presentation and public speaking skills. It is a really exciting part of our work – to inspire folks with the work that happens across the slate of premium and amazing projects ILM is consistently awarded! Sometimes you can get jaded and forget just how amazing what we in the industry collectively do is but all you have to do is take the opportunity to see it through fresh eyes and it all comes rushing back.”
Looking at the VES Awards nominations, Dara McGarry, Operations Manager DNEG Animation, notes that most of those nominated are in the highest supervisory roles and that is where we have the fewest women. “While there is more gender parity in the more junior roles, women in leadership is still a challenge,” she says.
“We still don’t have enough women in senior positions to show to other women the great opportunities of building a career in the film industry,” says Lorie Corcuera, Head of HR, North America West, DNEG. “We need to elevate more women quicker into these roles and give them equal opportunities and support. In this industry, experience is the ultimate defining factor but if you’re not given a chance it is very tricky, particularly when our male counterparts seem to have a head start with opportunities and experience.
“There is still a lot of unconscious bias that focuses on experience. Because men have had more opportunity, women must be given a chance to work on projects even if they don’t have the experience. They can co-supervise to gain the experience. We could create more apprentice-like opportunities for women to gain experience and exposure quicker.”
“A clear entry barrier for women to get into VFX is the perception that it is difficult to strike a good work-life balance in this industry,” says Deepa Valvi, Assistant Head of HR India, DNEG. “As in any other demanding profession, it is possible to make things work and as an industry we should put more initiatives in place to demonstrate that women can build a successful and rewarding career in VFX without having to give up on everything else.”
DNEG actively supports groups such as Animated Women UK, AccessVFX and Women in Animation, and they have a DEEP DIVE webinar series that features female team members.
The company also runs a Parental Leave Coaching Program which offers advice and mentorship for anyone going on parental leave. “It can be quite scary to leave, and it’s even more so to return when you feel the world evolved without you,” says Dara. “We believe 1:1 support is a great way to help ease people back into work.”
“The first few cohorts of our Mentorship Program are focused on non-male employees to support and fast track them in their careers,” says Lorie. “We also have an employee resource group called dnWomen that provides support to the women at DNEG including various events featuring internal and external female industry leaders sharing their stories.”
Katie Williams, Talent & Culture Director, Weta FX, believes it’s important to support all caregivers to return to work, not just women. “If we want to move the needle we also have to empower men to take on the role of primary caregiver so that it becomes a conversation and a choice between parents. We need everyone to feel able to care for their children as they wish, no matter their gender,” she says.
“The way Weta FX has done this is a parental leave policy which is completely gender agnostic – the leave provisions are available for both primary and secondary care givers regardless of their gender. We’ve done this to encourage both men and women to take the time they wish to have with their young children. We’ve also moved to a much more flexible working style where crew are able to work from home as well at the office. Our people have shared how much this helps them juggle their work / home commitments.”
To encourage women to take up careers in VFX, Weta engages with women at the various life stages when they’re making the decisions that will affect their future. Kate explains: “Firstly, we’ve been active in local schools in New Zealand talking to students about the excitement and opportunities a career in VFX will give. We do this to help young people make decisions around their school subjects which has a big impact on their tertiary studies and future career.
“Secondly, we run internships, tertiary scholarships and a graduate programme to encourage recent graduates to join our industry and Weta specifically. We aim for an evenly balanced split of genders across these programmes, while also ensuring we hire the right people in each role.
“Thirdly, we are active in career camps, like The Trojan Horse was a Unicorn who we’re joining for the first time this year. We are hoping to encourage people with a few more years of experience to stay in the industry and to join Weta and to create an opportunity for our senior people to share their wisdom and expertise with less experienced people in our industry.”
Hanging on to the women who do choose a career in VFX is also a priority at Weta FX.
“While we continue to encourage women to join our industry, we also need to explore how to retain the women who are already in our industry and support them to have long, successful VFX careers. At Weta FX, we’re running a Women in Leadership programme which aims to increase our gender balance at all stages of the crew journey: from gender-balanced interview panels through to exit interviews to understand reasons for leaving. Holding onto great talent is just as, if not more, important than hiring them.
“We know that our leaders have a significant impact on our culture and so we are really proud that our global Leadership Team is 50% female.”
For Patil Angaladian, Marketing and Public Relations Specialist, Cinesite, outreach is key to overcoming the gender imbalance in VFX. “By creating partnerships within the industry, the studio can reach out directly to women who want to work in VFX, provide key insights and forge relationships that will foster a new generation of talent,” she says. “Furthermore, Cinesite often sets up scholarship and mentoring programs to give women an opportunity to study in the field and gain the skills and knowledge necessary to work in the technical side of the industry.
“The Cinesite Vancouver studio has built a strong partnership with Girls & STEAM which provides opportunities to girls aged 14-16 to explore their dream careers in science, technology, engineering, arts and design, and maths. By providing mentorship opportunities to girls early on, we can foster their dream career and equip them with the tools and resources necessary to forge a career path in animation and VFX.”
Sophie Hunt, Group Communications and Publicity Manager, Cinesite, notes that a crucial part of providing a favourable working environment for women is equal pay. “We have processes and policies in place to ensure pay equity,” she says.
The studio has set a goal to achieve gender parity, and so far a good proportion of the workforce at Cinesite is female. “Our Montreal studio is currently at a 41% ratio, our London office 31%, and Vancouver is 45%. We are always striving to reach our goals,” says Sophie.
“We’ve also worked hard to ensure there are women who are visible in leadership roles across the business such as Veronique Tassart, Finance & Operations director of Cinesite Montreal, Tamara Boutcher, Head of Production for animation, Artemis Oikonomopoulou, Ellen Poon, Rebecca Manning and Dotti Starling, all of whom are VFX Supervisors, and Cinzia Angelini who’s Head of Story and currently co-directing the animated feature film HITPIG!, to name a few. It’s very hard to be what you can’t see, so it’s important Cinesite has plenty of role models for future talent and junior staff to learn from and be inspired by.”
Cinesite has implemented a number of policies that facilitate a good work-life balance for women returning to work after having children. “We offer comprehensive and generous maternity policies in all divisions, flexible hours to allow parents time to drop off/pick up children from school, and flexible working during pregnancy, to avoid rush hours, or working remotely where possible,” says Sophie.