Progress and Challenges: How Women in Media and Entertainment are Facing DEI, AI, and More

Thursday, April 11, 2024

In honor of Women’s History Month, ML Women Steering Committee Chair Louise Skinner convened an all-star panel to discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and the progress—and ongoing challenges—for women in leadership in the media and entertainment industry.

Sharing their experience and insights were:

Reese Alexander

Reese Alexander
, Production VP Human Resources for MRC Entertainment (Saltburn, Ozark, House of Cards)

Kate Gater

Kate Gater
, Senior VP Employment Law for NBCUniversal (Universal Pictures, Bravo, E! Entertainment)

Judy Margolin

Judy Margolin
, SVP and Deputy General Counsel at Penske Media (Variety, Rolling Stone, Golden Globes)

Jacqueline Cookerly Aguilera

Jackie Aguilera
, labor and employment partner in Morgan Lewis’s Los Angeles office.

Louise Skinner

Louise Skinner
, labor and employment partner in Morgan Lewis’s London office and ML Women Steering Committee Chair (moderator).

Here are excerpts from their conversation:

Louise: This is an industry that elicits shared emotions globally. Watching Barbie, I looked around the cinema and during America Ferreira’s speech about it being “impossible to be a woman,” there were tears coming down the cheeks of lots of the women there. Entertainment can bring us together emotionally and teach us about diverse cultures. But with that platform comes responsibility, a challenge to confront some of the most significant issues affecting society today. So, we want to talk about the impact and progress for women in the industry, and how technological advancements including AI are creating continuous new legal challenges.


Kate: My career is a little unusual. I worked in financial services for five years, then in professional services. I took time off to have my babies. I’ve also worked in education, and I’ve been a chair of a governing body, and now I’ve worked in media for about the last 10 years. I think it’s a super exciting industry to be in now. I advise on DEI targets and I get to see the impact that they do or don’t have in an organization. But actually, I think the targets are a bit of a sideshow because what they mean is so variable for a huge conglomerate like ours. I advise in relation to our businesses in the United Kingdom and Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Asia Pacific, and in some of those countries, protection against discrimination and harassment isn’t even a concept. I think the groundbreaking work we’ve done at NBC Universal, which I’ve been particularly proud of, is to approach DEI as a values proposition. We took a deliberate step to have global policies that apply to all our businesses in all our countries. And that’s important because often our expectations go much further than our legal obligations.

Louise: So regardless of what the minimum legal requirement is in any country you operate in, saying this is “our” standard and this is what we expect from you, even if the bar is higher than required by law—that’s very powerful.

Reese: I’ve worked in banking as well as hospitality, which are industries dealing with different cross-sections of people. And what has really helped us is that corporations doing harassment and discrimination training have given a voice to those individuals who previously didn’t have a voice. We’re in lots of countries too, and we’re oftentimes the first ones to do this work, and our motto is “if you see something, say something,” because if you don’t the problem will fester, and then someone explodes over a small issue. That’s one reason we have anonymous tools that employees can use to raise their issues and concerns, because there’s the added worry that they’ll be blackballed by the industry if they put their hand up. And it’s also better that you handle your issues internally rather than hearing about them in the press, because then that’s a runaway train.

Judy: I have been in publishing and media for 25 years. My company is younger, growing very quickly in media, publishing and events. We own a lot of traditional media, but we are moving into new areas, including real estate. I have my fingers in a lot of different pies. And though employment law is not my primary area, I see how great our commitment is to these issues. Across all our brands, there is extraordinary leadership by women and minorities. In the case of women, publishing has more history with this, maybe because it has been lower paying, but it’s nice to see women leading for us both on the editorial and business side. I am the global newsroom lawyer, among other roles that I play at my company, and I see how much we have focused on covering #MeToo issues and other discrimination in the workplace.


Judy: Media companies are covered in the media more than anyone. Media companies love to cover their competitors and hold them up to a magnifying glass. For a long time, this felt like it was a “Hollywood situation,” but now it’s expanded outward because we know that this happens in other industries as well.

Louise: Being in the public eye means companies are likely to face a much bigger reaction to instances of discrimination and harassment than those in industries which aren’t as “visible.” That said, many of our clients across industries, including in the financial services and pharmaceutical sectors, are taking personal misconduct issues extremely seriously, with more focus on the issue of abuse of power since the #MeToo movement. It had long been felt by many that certain people in very senior positions were seen as “untouchable” and therefore could perpetrate abusive behavior in a number of different ways, often manifesting as sexual harassment. This is now changing and these individuals are being called to account.

Kate: This resonates with me. And I’d add that sexual harassment comes in many shapes and sizes. But irrespective of the country, it generally looks the same and should not be tolerated. #MeToo has shone a light on that and given women a voice like never before. And as an organization we try to harness that. What Reese said before applies to us, because education and training is a massive part of what we do.

Jackie: I’ve seen good examples and I’ve seen bad examples, because I come at this from the perspective of a defense attorney. We have seen an uptick in claims by women against persons in power, and previously individuals in this industry were much more reluctant to speak out for fear of harming their career. Now we are observing women speak up much earlier. It is not unusual now, particularly for women in this industry, to hire an attorney while they’re still employed. They’re no longer waiting to be terminated or to quit or claim constructive discharge. And I would say my role since #MeToo has become a lot busier, along with all the implementation of fantastic programs and policies and all the improvements, particularly the ones that this industry has made, thanks to some of the amazing women on this panel. The reluctance [to report] just does not seem to be an impediment anymore due to the impact of #MeToo. You might see claims for failure to promote or claims relating to something that may have happened negatively to them after returning from a maternity leave, and you know we just didn’t see that in the same way 10 to 15 years ago.


Louise: Reese, MRC has been truly groundbreaking in terms of training the casts and crew of all of your productions, helping them to understand the way that they should treat each other, and particularly how to prevent harassment. In your industry people work together in ways that very rarely occur in the vast majority of industries—actors are often engaging with each other in a very physical way, and you also have people working in close physical contact in the makeup and costume departments, you’ve got people ensuring physical safety, and many other things that require close and sometimes intimate physical proximity. I’m interested in how you maintain the balance between protecting employees from harassment and encouraging them to speak up, while also trying to maintain artistic freedom and creativity. It’s just not something that the majority of employers have to think about.

Reese: We mention at the outset that some of our material may be graphic, and so if someone is uncomfortable, we want to know about that in advance, and it might be appropriate to remove them from that situation, even if it is temporary, after further review. I also connect them with our intimacy coordinators, which is a fairly new role to the industry.

Jackie: I completely agree with Reese that in the entertainment space we have to be very transparent about what employees are going to be exposed to. We have to tell them what they’re going to see, talk about, and overhear. They’re going to be exposed to sexually graphic material and touching and potentially disturbing content. And of course, again, coming from a defense attorney’s position, the legal pitch is, as you mentioned, Louise, this is part of the creative process, right? It also helps to point out that this is part of the job description, because we want to prevent claims in the first place. And another development is bystander intervention training. But overall, the idea is to address the concerns as delicately as possible.

Kate: At NBCUniversal we provide training to every individual at least once a year and on every production. We’ve become adept at training according to the audience and the content. So, on one movie you may train hair and makeup in a completely different way than you would train rigging. And the other thing that’s super important is helping people to understand terminology. It’s more than sexual harassment, it’s DEI, and pay, and other related issues.

Jackie: And when it also comes to training, particularly in the media and entertainment space, what I’ve noticed is that women in particular want to talk about DEI as part of these sexual harassment trainings. They want to hear more about diversity, not just a rigid sexual harassment discussion. They also want to explore the historical roots of discrimination and bias. DEI is not listed in our script of what we have to train about for sexual harassment under California law, but I will tell you a lot of folks in this space have included it as part of their sexual harassment training because the consumers want to hear about it.


Judy: We’re at an inflection point right now. It’s a challenging industry to enter. And we’re not the sexy industry—everybody wants to go work for a technology company or a startup. Everybody knows that the media world is challenged, because we have tremendous challenges in the digital advertising ecosystem and now with generative AI. That said, the pace of innovation has really increased, which also has created a lot of opportunities. So, I would say don’t be deterred. But be prepared to adapt. When I’m negotiating, for example, I stress that whatever media or format we’re working in today is going to be totally different in 10 years’ time.


Judy: We have just developed a policy around the use of AI. It’s an existential issue of credibility. If you’re passing something off as having been written by a human when it wasn’t, that itself is false. We created clear guidelines about eight months ago, and I’m sure we’ll have to reevaluate them in four months, as the pace of change is so fast. And there might be different standards around the world which we will need to keep up with.

Kate: For us it was an issue that came up in the writers’ strikes last year, because it creates a lot of fear. Different parts of the business are using or considering AI. So, it involves another big educational push. Getting a degree of comfort demystifies the issue and makes it easier to deal with.

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Louise: Thank you all. I’m so grateful to have heard your inspirational thoughts and guidance and I know everybody joins me in thanking you for celebrating Women’s History Month with us. It was fascinating to hear about the important advances for DEI and harassment prevention, and the progress of women, in this industry. We look forward to what the future holds!