On International Women’s Day, we asked women in VFX about what is being done to entice more minorities to join the ranks
If you want to get an idea of the extent to which VFX is a male-dominated industry, take a look at this report from think tank USC Annenberg and Women in Animation, published at the end of 2021. Looking at data from 2016-2019, the report finds that women received 21.6 percent of all VFX credits across 400 top movies. Women made up just 2.9 percent of VFX supervisors and 23 percent of VFX editors. Production roles however saw much better representation of women, with 46.7 of VFX producers being female.
Overall, the industry is failing to attract and retain people from a demographic that constitutes 50 percent of the population. At a time when demand for creative talent is sky-high, communicating to young women that VFX is a good place to work is an important part of tackling the industry’s capacity problem, as is working to retain the women who tend to leave after having a family.
“The industry in general has a PR problem,” says Lucy Cooper, MD at Union VFX. “People think of men coding in dark rooms when they think of VFX, but the industry has a huge plethora of exciting careers with broad appeal. We have a lot of work to do to educate the younger generation that these roles exist and they can thrive in them.”
Lucy believes that it’s everyone’s responsibility to drive change; we all need to step up. “If you are managing you can create an environment in which collaboration and respect are expected and encourage everyone to speak – even if they are reluctant,” she says.
Visibility is important, so putting yourself out there as a role model for women in VFX is immensely helpful. “If you’re asked to contribute to an article or speak on a panel try to do it even if you’re a bit scared,” says Lucy.
It’s also good to work out your own way of fitting into your workplace. “Be yourself. That doesn’t mean you never have to change or adapt – we all have to do that all the time – but figure out what that looks like for you.”
It’s easy to get hit with imposter syndrome when you’re a minority, so it’s important to establish a strong personal philosophy with respect to your career.
“You are an active participant in your career and where it goes,” says Lucy. “You make choices with every role you apply for and every job you leave. It’s not something passive that happens to you. You are in the driving seat. Luck also has very little to do with it. You earn all of your achievements. You just have to get comfortable with saying that and not be embarrassed. You can find your own way to communicate the success that fits you.”
Leadership in a male environment can be tricky for women, and Lucy emphasises that there’s no need to adopt masculine traits to succeed. “You don’t need to pretend to be a man to be a good leader. There are lots of different ways to lead and the one that is most authentic will be the one that works,” she says. “You are in your role because you are qualified. You have valuable experience and knowledge. You deserve your seat at the table.”
Meg Guidon, VFX Executive Producer at Freefolk echoes the need to work on one’s self-belief. “Use the support available from peers in the industry and work on ‘owning’ your position, rather than deferring or not feeling worthy,” she says. “Without being unbearable, when you know that you have a valid opinion, or specific relevant knowledge, the potential or talent and energy to offer – make sure you speak up. Once you start to own it, people will respond and turn to you for your input.”
For Luiza Cruz-Flade, Executive Producer at Territory Studio, bringing men on board is important, so action has to go beyond the female-only events that are often used to promote women. “We can be in danger of creating our own private clubs when it’s better to involve men in the conversation,” she says.
Luiza notes that rather than getting overwhelmed by the scale of the issue, we can make progress by focusing on our individual working practices. “Start with yourself – how can you change and make a difference in your own actions? Even as women, we need to ensure we are championing other women. As an EP, if I’m hiring, I need to help, nurture and empower my colleagues, especially those starting their careers. It’s about having a positive impact using what you have.”
Minimising the sense of hierarchy in an organisation can be helpful. “At a company level, it’s about opening the floor to people of different ranks and backgrounds and leveling the playing field so people feel they can be confident in expressing their opinions and talents,” says Luiza.
Unfortunately, long-standing problems that women have always faced continue to play out today. Old-fashioned sexism is deeply ingrained and is something we still have to navigate.
“It’s seen across many industries, but women are often held to a different standard than men,” says Ana Hoxha, Animation Producer at Blind Pig. “On top of just doing the job, we’re frequently hyper aware of being assertive but not bossy, being friendly but not a pushover. This layer of scrutiny can put women at a disadvantage when applying for jobs or working their way up to leadership roles.”
Ana sees teaching and mentoring as key to progressing the careers of women in VFX. “It’s important we create opportunities for women based on their creative talent and not necessarily based on their experience,” she says. “If we can provide the infrastructure for people to hone their skills and push themselves, hopefully we’ll start seeing more women in creative leadership roles.”
Another long-standing challenge is how child-bearing can fit into a career, and the fact that women tend to take on the role of primary carer for their children.
“I think there are a lot of compromises one needs to make when in senior positions and this can be very demanding for someone who is trying to progress at work and raise a family,” says Noga Alon Stein, Head of Production at MISC Studios. “The late nights, last-minute schedule changes and time away from home often means one area will suffer, or burnout is lurking around every corner. I know the VFX industry isn’t the only place this happens, but the historically male-focused nature of our working environments is something many studios are battling. That said, I’m hopeful as these days more women are part of leadership teams, taking words into action and building more equitable studios for everyone.”
Noga notes that things are evolving in a promising way, but change takes time. “Extended maternity support and flexible working policies, much like those used during the pandemic, are an excellent step to giving women the freedom to progress at work without punishing them for wanting a family,” she says. “Studios actively making space for women to level up and grow into leadership positions with mentorship programmes is another positive step.”
The real priority in the long term has to be promoting the industry to the next generation. “Through exposure via workshops, placements, talks and mentorships, we can inspire young girls and women from all backgrounds that this industry is for them too,” says Noga. “We should shine a light on the amazing women making huge changes in the VFX industry more often and not just on International Women’s Day.”
Sarah Tanner, Group Head of People and Organisation at Pixomondo echoes the concern that parenthood and a VFX career can be tough to balance. “Speaking as a mother, the ebbs and flows of work and the ever-changing nature of the industry mean that predicting childcare needs is often hard,” she says. “Balancing motherhood and work is just plain hard. Not just in terms of logistics (that’s hard enough!) but the heart-wrenching parts too, when you want to give your all to your job but also have the needs of your child to consider. It can be hard to make it work and the end result is usually at the expense of taking care of yourself. Something has to give, and that is usually you.”
According to Sarah, what’s needed is “visible, positive, encouraging activity and behaviour that promotes access and opportunities for underrepresented groups, and an environment where we’re aware and able to acknowledge when things aren’t equitable, and we’re comfortable in calling each other out about it so we can challenge the status quo.”
Heidi Prescott, Junior CG Artist at Absolute Post, notes that while it can be intimidating starting out in a male-dominated industry as a woman, so far she has seen big leaps in the right direction.
“Not only do we have a female Head of CG, Rebekah King-Britton, but also, since I joined the company under a year ago, the number of women in our department has already doubled and this alone has made a big impact,” she says. “I’d like to hope that other studios are doing the same, and we can see progress towards a more balanced industry.”
Acknowledging and working with difference is key to creating a diverse workplace.
“Equity to me, as I’m sure it is to many, is the act of giving everyone the same opportunities whilst taking into consideration the fact that not all of us come from the same starting point,” says Heidi. “For some, the route to success is much less linear and that is something that needs to be taken into consideration when growing a team.”