September 11, 2019

"Pioneers in Skirts"

Ashley Maria MFA '12 on Rallying Against Gender Discrimination via her New Feature Documentary

By Andrea Ngeleka

Young girls are encouraged every day to understand their own potential and not to limit their ambitions. This message grows weary as girls become young women because they are confronted with certain entrenched obstacles and “realities” that hinder their career path; whether it's being looked over for a promotion or being undermined in a position of authority. The ways in which these realities affect women’s goals is what MFA Alumni Ashley Maria seeks to document in her film Pioneers in Skirts. She’s doing this not only to shed light on the issue but also to propose and discuss realistic solutions to the gendered obstacles curbing women’s career ambitions. 

First and foremost, the film was inspired by Maria’s own experiences. “My goal has always been to direct big budget films. In 2009, I knew I had to get the experience and the training – so, I hopped in my car and traveled across the U.S. to spend three years a a Master’s student at USC,” says Maria.  “I was determined. Things weren’t perfect, though. As the director on the student-run set, I sometimes experienced people questioning my decisions and telling me I wasn’t "likeable" on set. I found myself wondering if I wasn't presenting myself in the right way. I was confused. I was stressed. I worked harder. When I graduated from USC, I was ready to be that director I had worked so hard to be. But – when I entered the workforce, I was shocked to experience a heightened level of what I had felt in school. I found out I was a “woman director” trying to make it in a man’s world.”

Maria’s film also explicates specific challenges that women face in every profession. It explores how being undermined regardless of one’s experience isn’t only discouraging, but actively curtails careers. Hence, with the help of producer Lea-Ann W. Berst, Maria sought to make a film that could encourage change. “For Pioneers in Skirts, our goal is to influence change in how our culture thinks of and treats women and girls,” she says. “It started with a question: ‘what will it take for women to get a fair chance at their dreams?’ Then, there was a lot of research to understand just how good or bad it really is for women today. And girls. What’s getting in their way? First of all, do they know that something is in their way? What can they do about it? What can all of us do about it?”

A character-driven documentary, Pioneers in Skirts interviews girls and women of all ages from all over the country about how they feel their gender impacts how they move through their careers. “As I traveled to the U.S., I interviewed people having great success in changing their lives and changing the world,” says Maria. “I was humbled and soon learned that film, especially documentary, has the potential to play an important role in changing the world, too. Documentaries can offer the data an audience needs to understand a dire situation and then the stories to bring that data to life.” 

Maria didn’t stop at just making a film, she went as far as the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW63) after being selected to be the North American delegate by the oldest working women’s advocacy group in the world, Business & Professional Women. 

My first impression was of just how many NGOs saw the importance of films for impacting culture and decision making -- all over the globe,” Maria says about the experience. “Media is so encompassing in our lives. It influences everything. Which means, we as filmmakers and content creators have the potential to influence positive change. At first, I felt very small. How could my film, set in the United States about career women, help women in other cultures facing way more distressing conditions? Soon, though, I was hit in the face with how truly similar we all are. Women in Zimbabwe are seeing a lack of funding for their ventures. Same as women in the US. Women in China are facing unpaid care work and lack of career progress. Women in Brazil want to make the world a better place for women. I quickly realized we were no longer in our own corner fighting for a better world, we were now all together, supporting each other and listening.”

Pioneers in Skirts is a call to action. It’s asking parents, industry professionals, men and women alike to make gender parity a feasible reality. Ashley Maria tells us, with her film, that an inclusive and welcoming world is possible.