Reflections on the Oscars and Women

Patricia Arquette The Oscars and WomenThis past Sunday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences put on its 87th Oscars (Oscars is the official name now; no more “Academy Awards.”). You might have heard a bit of controversy about the Oscars this year. The moment the nominations were announced, a hashtag developed on Twitter – #oscarssowhite. The reason? All 20 acting nominees for Oscars this year were, in fact, white. As were all five directing nominees, all ten screenplay nominees, and so on.

Yet, what I found more surprising (and disheartening) was not the lack of racially diverse nominees, but the lack of female ones. Two of the most surprising Oscar nomination snubs were in Best Director – Ava Duvernay for Selma – and Best Adapted Screenplay – Gillian Flynn for Gone Girl. Both were long considered likely nominees and, in the case of Gillian Flynn who had already won 16 screenwriting awards for the adaptation of her best-selling novel, a front-runner to win.

Moreover, as has been written about extensively, all eight Best Picture nominees were excellent movies centered on stories of men. Six of the eight failed the Bechdel test outright – the test that asks that in a movie, at least two women must talk to each other about something other than a man. The nominated movies featured Ellar Coltrane as the titular boy in Boyhood; Michael Keaton as an aging superhero actor; Ralph Fiennes as a dashing pre-WW2 hotel concierge; J.K. Simmons as a maniacal orchestra conductor; Bradley Cooper as an American sniper; David Oyelewo as Martin Luther King, Jr.; Benedict Cumberbatch as the father of computers Alan Turing, and Eddie Redmayne as theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.

The last is particularly interesting as the marketing behind The Theory of Everything, as well as its Oscars push, focused entirely on it being a “Stephen Hawking movie.” Many of those who saw it realized it for what it was – a movie about a woman married to a genius with a debilitating disease. The movie itself is based on her autobiography, not his. Eddie Redmayne essentially plays the role often given to the woman in these movies – that of supporting spouse. And yet, he walked away with the Best Lead Actor statue Sunday.

Meanwhile on the Best Supporting Actress front, Time Magazine summarized a weak field thus: “mother, daughter, girlfriend or witch.” (I would probably have replaced that last one with “Meryl Streep”). When eventual winner Patricia Arquette demanded in her acceptance speech, “Equal pay for equal work,” the response (both negative and positive) was resounding. The National Association of Women’s Lawyers even issued a press release congratulating her on her statement.

Yet as many of the actress nominations made clear in their work, particularly in Patricia Arquette’s role as the working mother in Boyhood, “mother, daughter girlfriend” is often the role many working women find themselves in. Witness the recent popular article about the “default parent.” The article argues that even when there are two working professionals in the house, the “default parenting” duties often fall to the mother. Those duties include and are not limited to: “activity sign-ups, transportation logistics, doctor & dentist appointments, friend and boy issues, hurt feelings, school fundraisers, gift buying, haircuts, clothes shopping, and thank you note writing.” According to the author and the many who have agreed with her, often in a man-woman parenting arrangement, it’s the woman who becomes the parent in charge of the household and a family simply because she has, as the author put it, “a uterus.”

How about this study out of Harvard focused solely on high-achieving men and women, i.e, Harvard Business School graduates? According to the study, “among those graduates who are employed full-time, men are more likely to have direct reports, to hold profit-and-loss responsibility, and to be in senior management positions.” As for who had taken a career break to raise children, among HBS graduates, 28% of Gen X and 44% of Baby Boomer female HBS graduates had at some point taken a break of more than six months to care for children, compared to only 2% of male Boomer and Gen X HBS graduates. Interestingly, Boomer and Gen X men had lower expectations about marrying someone who would take primary child rearing responsibilities (84% and 78%) than actually occurred (86% actually had partners who took on the role). In contrast, fewer women in both generations thought they would be the primary child care provider (about 50%) than those who ended up in the role (72% Boomer and 65% Gen X). A Slate article, tongue firmly in cheek, summarized the study as such: “It’s Not Your Kids Holding Your Career Back. It’s Your Husband.”

What about lawyers? NALP just released its statistics comparing women and minorities in law firms from 2009-2014. Associates and total lawyers remained more or less the same over the past five years – around 45% of associates are women, and around 33% of all lawyers are women. At the same time, women partnership percentages remained more or less the same, increasing from 19.21% in 2009 to 21.05% in 2015.

How much does family and childbearing play into these numbers? Last year, Working Mother and Flex-Time Lawyers put out a Joint Report on the Best Law Firms for Women 2014. While the report acknowledged that these Best Law Firms offered flexible and part-time arrangements for women lawyers wanting to both work and raise families, when it came to Reduced Hour schedules and promotion, the reality hit: 48 of the 50 Best Law Firms allowed Reduced Hour lawyers to be eligible for equity partnership promotion. However, in 2014, none of the 10 lawyers promoted to non-equity partnership were working reduced hours; same story for the 8 lawyers promoted to equity partnership.

As always, numbers will never tell the whole story. Cultural expectations, company policies, traditional single-sex workplaces, and, of course, individual decision-making, all play key roles as well. But as both Hollywood and Harvard make clear, women – even high-achieving women – are often limited in fiction and reality to the roles of “mother, daughter, girlfriend.” And if law firms are going to open up their associate ranks to reduced and flex-time hours (an option not just taken by women, but men as well, particularly among the Millennial generation), then they will need to decide how to incorporate that change into traditional partnership roles. As for the Oscars themselves, one can only hope that next year’s nominated movies reflect the many other lead roles that women can and do play in real life. At the very least, hopefully more than two of them will have women talking about something other than men.

Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

Former Diversity & Education Director at Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism

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Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

Former Diversity & Education Director at Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism

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