Awards season is here, and with it, the inevitable diversity, equity and inclusion conversation. Unfortunately, in our industry, this crucial and nuanced subject is too often treated with the subtlety of a wrecking ball demolishing a doll’s house. What’s more, the conversation is far too short-lived, ending once acceptance speeches have been given and tuxedos safely returned to closets.
In some respects, VFX leads the film and TV industry in terms of DE&I. The VFX industry is one of the industry’s most ethnically-diverse areas, where people of color and minorities make up 19 percent of the workforce. However, there’s significant progress still to be made on this and other factors, including gender, sexuality, neurodiversity and socioeconomic background.
So, what steps should the VFX industry be taking to ensure long-term DE&I progress, rather than short-term box-ticking?
WANTED: VFX TALENT
It’s now widely accepted that organizations with a more diverse workforce perform better. A recent McKinsey survey of 1,039 global businesses found that those in the fourth quartile of both gender and ethnic diversity were 27 percent more likely to underperform on profitability. A diverse workforce brings a wide range of skills and insights, which in turn supports creativity, problem solving and innovation — three traits that lie at the heart of the VFX industry. Despite this, the industry’s hiring practices all too often lead to talent being overlooked.
To create lasting change, visual effects studios must prioritize inclusive hiring practices, rather than viewing them as “nice to have”. According to Peter Rogers, managing director of Cardiff-based Bait Studio, DE&I ended up taking a back seat when studios went into survival mode during the pandemic.
“COVID-19 has taken us back a few steps, with fewer new starters coming into the industry and more reliance on the most experienced people, who tend to be older, white and male,” says Rogers. “It’s important that we collectively double our efforts with the next wave of recruitment and outreach, so that we can not only claw that back, but also go a lot further, ensuring that change is truly sustainable.”
What about employers who say they simply “can’t find diverse talent?”
For Samantha Levy, head of immigration at Dneg, this is no excuse.
“Studios need to become more rooted in the communities in which they’re based,” Levy explains. “There are already lots of dedicated organizations specializing in neurodiversity, gender empowerment and racial justice that provide subject-matter expertise and workshops. Studios need to forge partnerships with these to connect with underrepresented communities.”
Access:VFX is just one such organization helping to create a diverse talent pool for the industry. As well as working with aspiring artists, animators, producers and technicians, Access:VFX targets young people who’d never previously considered a career in visual effects. To date, 700 mentees have been placed, 71 percent of whom are female or come from diverse and ethnic backgrounds.
MAKING IT TO THE TOP
You’ve been hiring diverse talent for years, so why does your boardroom still look the same?
Even in organizations with inclusive hiring practices, all too often the same narrow groups — generally straight, white men — advance the furthest and the quickest. For example, though 27 percent of the visual effects workforce is female, women make up just 11 to 16 percent of top-quartile earners in the industry.
Contrary to popular belief, research by McKinsey and LeanIn.org has found that women don’t hit a “glass ceiling” at the very top of an organization. Instead, they are more likely to struggle to obtain their first promotion into a managerial role. On average, men outnumber women nearly 2:1 in making that first step up.
To reverse this trend, studios must invest in training, promotion and mentorship schemes. These are just as important — if not more so — than hiring a diverse intake of junior staff. Employers must also understand the intersectionalities of their employees’ identities. For instance, the same research found that black women are significantly less likely than women overall to report that their manager has inquired about their workload or work-life needs.
RETHINKING HOW WE WORK
According to Levy, one of the biggest barriers to change in the VFX industry is the nature of employment contracts. Temporary contracts lead many talented individuals to seek employment elsewhere, disproportionately affecting mothers and older employees saving for retirement, as well as those starting out in the industry without a financial safety net.
“Project-based work leads to a widespread culture of fixed-term contracts,” Levy explains. “The precariousness of these creates an inequitable situation for several groups. Until we acknowledge the way in which this structure impacts certain demographics, this industry will continue to be inaccessible to diverse groups of employees.”
Unfortunately, there’s no one secret to building a more diverse visual effects industry. For studios, the only way to guarantee results is through hard work.
As Levy puts it, “The industry needs to become more proactive, rather than thinking these issues will correct on their own over time. If not, then we may succeed at bringing in more diverse talent, but we’ll never see that diversity reflected in the senior ranks of the industry, no matter how long we wait.”
Kathleen Ruffalo is the Recruitment Manager, USA, for Framestore