by NAOMI GOLDMAN
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
by NAOMI GOLDMAN
How do we attract and retain a diverse pipeline of VFX and entertainment tech professionals to carry our global industry forward? How can women leaders help achieve parity and diversity in the workplace? How do we create a productive, inclusive culture that supports workforce development, equity and advancement? The issues of diversity, equity and inclusion are paramount and complex, and the clarion call for efforts to compel systemic and sustainable progress is loud and unwavering.
For the past four years, the VES and Autodesk have fueled a partnership dedicated to lifting up voices from often underrepresented communities through our “Ask Me Anything: VFX Pros Tell All” initiative. Working with Autodesk, we have interviewed more than two dozen professionals from diverse backgrounds. These industry leaders have shared lessons learned from their personal career journeys, brought forth bold actions their companies are undertaking to move the needle, and issued calls to action to their peers and colleagues to join the DEI movement.
This year, we sat down and hosted panel conversations with five extraordinary women leading the charge in visual effects and media & entertainment tech and gleaned their insights and ideas. Lending their voices to this ongoing conversation are: Leona Frank, Director of Media & Entertainment Marketing, Autodesk; Nina Stille, Director of Global Diversity & Inclusion Partners, Intel; Barbara Marshall, Global M&E Industry Strategy Lead, Z by HP; Janet Lewin, Senior Vice President, Lucasfilm VFX & General Manager, ILM; and Janet Muswell Hamilton, VES, Senior Vice President of Visual Effects, HBO. As individual leaders and as a collective, they exemplify what can be done to address shared challenges and achieve a shared vision for the global entertainment industry.
VFXV: In service of creating an inclusive work environment for your employees, what are some of the programs and initiatives offered by your company?
Leona Frank, Autodesk: We have nine “Employee Resource Groups,” including groups for Black, Latinx, LGBTQ+ and neurodiverse employees, because we want everyone to feel represented and a sense of inclusion. Anyone can join the groups as allies – you don’t have to be a member of that community. And because running these employee-led groups takes considerable volunteer time, we provide stipends for that important labor and emotional labor, in recognition of our employee dedication, and ensure that each group has the support of an executive sponsor.
Janet Lewin, ILM/Lucasfilm: When I was coming up the industry, there wasn’t a language for what it took to develop the confidence and competencies to self-advocate and help navigate obstacles in the male-dominated industry. So, we are really investing in tools to help underrepresented groups and women specifically. “Promote Her” was piloted at ILM and focuses on teaching ‘soft skills’ – how to advocate for yourself, raise your hand for consideration, network, and combat that sense of imposter syndrome.
Nina Stille, Intel: We offer a wonderful service to all employees, a confidential “Warm Line,” staffed by advisors trained in resilience, who are available to provide counsel and discuss challenges and solutions. We also have our “Talent Keepers” program, aimed at engaging mid-level Black employees in the U.S. and Costa Rica and their managers. It helps employees with career empowerment and it fosters best practices for managers. Since the tracks ultimately merge, the co-creation of career development plans by employees and their supervisors has resulted in higher employee promotions rates and less race and gender bias in management practices.
Barbara Marshall, HP: We are quite bold in the sustainability and diversity realms; our goal is to be the most sustainable and just global technology company. Our strategy is built around three pillars – climate action, human rights and digital equity – interlinked and with specific programs. The company is very transparent in sharing our progress to meet our goals of achieving gender parity in 2023 and doubling the number of Black executives by 2025. I’m proud that our Board is already 46% women and that we have had two female CEOs, which is unique for a blue-chip, publicly-traded company.
VFXV: You are all committed to building the pipeline to bring up new talent. What are you doing and what needs to be done in the areas of recruitment and outreach to help bring diverse voices to the forefront?
Janet Muswell Hamilton, HBO: We are making strides, but to create that kind of rich workforce, we need to invest more in early education to middle school and high school students. We all need to do more to showcase that these kinds of jobs in VFX and entertainment exist, that they are exciting and viable careers, demystify our industry and lower the bar for entry. We need to go beyond the schools where we tend to cultivate almost exclusively white men and expand our horizons in every aspect. I also appreciate the renewed focus I’m seeing in programs that look at training and retraining people who may have left the workforce, are looking to transfer from another industry or have valuable lived experience – like the work we are doing in the VES Education Committee to develop new career pathways for veterans.
Nina Stille, Intel: I’m proud of our “Relaunch Your Career” program, which we initially piloted in 2019 to help people who took a career break (parents, caregivers) to re-enter the workforce. This is an untapped and highly experienced workforce, often overlooked because of a break in their résumé, but rich in unique and valuable soft skills. In 2022, we hired 80 contractors for a 16-20 week ‘return-ship’; 87% of those people were converted to full-time roles and 88% of those converted were women and people from underrepresented communities. We are proud of the results and want to keep investing in efforts like these. We also have deep ties to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and partner with these academic institutions and organizations like AfroTech and Lesbians Who Tech to help identify and develop talent that encompasses a diverse spectrum of voices and experience.
“[A] lot of what we see is teaching women or underrepresented minorities how to be successful in existing environments versus rebuilding environments to make space for different ways of being and doing that diverge from the dominant culture.”
—Nina Stille, Director of Global Diversity & Inclusion Partners, Intel
Barbara Marshall, HP: We also work with HBCUs and are a founding member of the HBCU Business Deans Roundtable, and introduced the business case competition, now in its fourth year, which gives students opportunities to develop solutions to real HP business problems and get hands-on experience. As part of our DEI strategy, we also overhauled our internship and graduate recruitment strategy – if you keep recruiting from the same places that are predominately white in the prospective talent pool, you won’t improve your diversity. This needs to be a holistic approach looking at every level from early education to pipeline cultivation to meaningful change in how we all approach hiring, training and employee support.
VFXV: Creating work environments that are more conducive to caregivers and working parents, especially amidst a childcare crisis, exacerbated by the pandemic, is a big topic of discussion in many industries. How does your company approach these issues?
Leona Frank, Autodesk: This topic is close to me, as I had two children during COVID. We offer a number of programs including “Flex Forward,” offering hybrid models for people to work from home, which has been a real game-changer and resonates really well with parents and caregivers. We also have working rooms at conferences where moms can pump, and we also pay for breast milk to be shipped home by our working moms while traveling. These kinds of programs put people at the center and help us look at how we can enable them to be their best self and get their best work done.
Nina Stille, Intel: I also had a COVID baby and so this resonates for me. We offer a hybrid and flexible work model that helps accommodate working parents and caregivers. Beyond providing additional paid medical leave, when people are aiming to reintegrate into the workforce we offer pathways to work part-time with full-time pay for a period of time to get back into the work rhythm. Through external vendors we also offer forums to join coaching sessions with other birthing parents to tap into community support, and financial assistance and priority no-fee enrollment for local childcare facilities and emergency no-fee childcare. These are all really attractive benefits for prospective and existing employees.
VFXV: There is often an onus on women and people from underrepresented communities to solve the inequities they did not create and lead the way forward. What can allies do to engage in this work around diversity, equity and inclusion to help create meaningful progress and change?
Janet Lewin, ILM/Lucasfilm: Be a mentor. Take someone under your wing and formalize that relationship and bring them into your process and mindset. For many people, the process is daunting, and being on set and working with filmmakers requires a lot of tutelage. Raise your hand, use your platforms and step up to help develop someone’s career and enable them to be successful. Align with vendors who share your company’s priorities and commitment to change. And think about hiring for potential and taking a leap of faith on someone.
Janet Muswell Hamilton, HBO: I agree, mentorship is essential and helping people to grow and learn on-set etiquette – which can be a minefield – and is an important element in and of itself worthy of more training and educational tools. One idea to get someone ready for success to ‘over hire’ on a project – hire a second supervisor with enormous potential, mentor them, give them a safe landing to ask questions and feel supported. Job shadowing and job sharing are great models to integrate into talent pipeline cultivation. That kind of on-the-job training and exposure can mean the difference in getting someone ready to play more of a senior role when the next opportunity arises and be successful.
“As part of our DEI strategy, we also overhauled our internship and graduate recruitment strategy – if you keep recruiting from the same places that are predominately white in the prospective talent pool, you won’t improve your diversity. This needs to be a holistic approach looking at every level from early education to pipeline cultivation to meaningful change in how we all approach hiring, training and employee support.”
—Barbara Marshall, Global M&E Industry Strategy Lead, Z by HP
Barbara Marshall, HP: There are subliminal messages in everyday language, so one idea is to go through your documentation and remove language that is rooted in racism and sexism, like blacklist. Neutralize the language to not undermine any group. And on training – I find it fascinating that we tend to focus on coaching women how to be less emotional or lower our voices, and I think we should also be coaching men on how to understand and tune in to different voices and modes of working dynamics to be the best partners and team members.
Nina Stille, Intel: I agree that a lot of what we see is teaching women or underrepresented minorities how to be successful in existing environments versus rebuilding environments to make space for different ways of being and doing that diverge from the dominant culture. It’s also appealing to jump to action, but it must be grounded in your own self-awareness and understanding of how your positional power and privilege influences your world view and approach to work and to life. Operating from a place of intention and with a more intersectional lens can make an enormous difference in engaging in the work to be done.
Leona Frank, Autodesk: True allyship means making someone’s problem your own and pushing for change. As a Black woman, the emotional labor that comes with having to explain issues affecting me and my community is a huge onus and unfair expectation. Allies can take on the labor to self-educate, which keeps my back free. And when you are in a room that I am not in, where decisions get made, use your voice and push for equity issues in all aspects of hiring practices, performance reviews, opportunities for recognition and advancement. Raise critical questions and bold ideas that can really advance our DEI goals and help shape a more just and equitable future where new players have the chance to lend their unique talents – and truly be set up to thrive. We are all so much richer to be surrounded and influenced by a harmonious chorus of diverse voices.
Tune in to the full conversations with these dynamic Women Who Lead at https://www.vesglobal.org/ama