Two federal government agencies have launched an investigation into discrimination against female directors in Hollywood, the American Civil Liberties Union announced Wednesday. The news comes a year after the civil rights organization requested that the government look into hiring practices at studios.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs have been working on a wide-ranging investigation, according Melissa Goodman, a lawyer with the ACLU. The investigation was prompted by an ACLU report after the organization conducted its own two-year audit into discriminatory practices. The ACLU collected testimonials from over 50 female directors who reported sexist practices like studio-compiled “short lists” of potential directors that were almost exclusively male. In October, the Los Angeles Times reported that several female directors received surveys from the EEOC regarding gender discrimination in Hollywood.
“We are encouraged by the scope and seriousness of the investigation,” Goodman says. “Over the last year, there’s been a lot of lip-service paid to furthering opportunities for women in Hollywood. But there have been very few definitive steps to solve the problem. It’s a really deep structural problem in the industry. The number of women who are actually being hired is not changing. It’s been stagnant for decades.”
Federal law prevents the EEOC from denying or confirming the existence of a charge against any industry, Kimberly Smith-Brown, a spokesperson for the EEOC said in a statement to TIME. “We also encourage the industry to publicly address the serious issues raised by the ACLU and to take proactive steps to address these issues,” Smith-Brown said.
Women made up just 9% of all directors for the top 250 grossing films last year, according to the annual Celluloid Ceiling Report released by the University of Southern California. The ACLU says this number indicates a systemic bias, as defined by the Supreme Court. Hollywood insiders have said that even when female directors do succeed—some of 2015’s biggest hits were helmed by women, including Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey, Elizabeth Banks’ Pitch Perfect 2 and Nancy Meyers’ The Intern—they’re considered the exception, not the rule.
Since the ACLU called upon the government to look into sexism in the industry last year, dozens of female directors have come forward with stories of discrimination, most notably in a New York Times Magazine story by Maureen Dowd. Few women are able to convince studios to give them the funds to create films, and even fewer are then tapped from the indie circuit to direct big-budget movies.
TIME spoke with Kathryn Bigelow, the first female best director Oscar winner, last year after the ACLU released its report.
“I have always firmly believed that every director should be judged solely by their work, and not by their work based on their gender. Hollywood is supposedly a community of forward thinking and progressive people yet this horrific situation for women directors persists,” Bigelow told TIME. “Gender discrimination stigmatizes our entire industry. Change is essential. Gender neutral hiring is essential.”
“One of our goals was to legitimize what was happening—there are systemic barriers here, it’s not just about you and your own talent and experiences,” says Goodman. “We wanted to shout that from the rooftops.”
There’s no deadline for the investigation. But the EEOC has the power to determine whether systemic discrimination exists in an industry and file charges of discrimination themselves (rather than having individuals file them). That could mean filing a charge against one studio or network or charges against all the major studios, depending on the investigation’s results.
“Film and television are among our most powerful and influential cultural products, and they’re overwhelmingly made by men, telling male stories, depicting women through a male lens, and reinforcing stereotypes,” says Goodman. “I think it shapes the way women and girls see themselves and limits the opportunities that the world presents to them.”
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