It’s a bit disconcerting that a film like Pioneers in Skirts is relevant in 2015. But the good news is filmmakers Ashley Maria and Lea-Ann Berst are shining a light on its central issue in a relatable and entertaining way.
The documentary digs into a question that’s quite personal for director Ashley Maria. Ashley’s wanted to make movies for as long as she can remember. She attended USC, one of the most prestigious film schools in the world. There she pursued a master’s degree and her first student film won her the Directors Guild of America Award in 2010. But not long after she began her professional work, she began to doubt both herself and her chosen career path.
Ashley explains, “This film started with my own personal journey; I was trying to figure out what happened to me and how I could prevent it from happening to other people. What happened that caused me to lose my confidence and doubt my potential success?”
Why after such a short time was she doubting a dream she’d successfully pursued all her life?
[UPDATE: The Kickstarter campaign was a success! The fundraising goal was met in October of 2015 and Pioneers in Skirts is in production.]
“I was constantly told, ‘there aren’t any women in film, and so you’re going to have a tough journey of it.’” It didn’t take Ashley long to realize the women in the industry weren’t sharing their experiences with one another. It seemed as if each woman was pushing forward alone instead of in a community. They were isolated and trying to figure out how to navigate the workforce without the benefit of shared experience, community support, or the hard-won lessons of their colleagues.
Wondering if this experience was unique to her industry, she began to ask around. When she discovered her friends in other industries had similar experiences, she decided to investigate the issue using the best tool she had in her arsenal—documentary film.
Enter producer Lea-Ann Berst. Lea-Ann is not only the producer of Pioneers in Skirts, she’s also Ashley’s mother. Ashley explains, “When she saw the shift I was experiencing in my career, she noticed it was something very similar to what she had experienced when she was starting out. So she jumped on board to help me figure out how do we change this and make an impact.”
Lea-Ann suggests that if you talk to anyone her age they would agree that they all went through similar struggles early in their careers. “I graduated from college in 1984 and as I entered the workforce it was very customary for women to be looked at and talked to as objects.” Lea-Ann recalls wearing a dress to work and being asked by her boss to twirl to show it off.
But surely that sort of blatant sexism isn’t still present today! Sadly, Ashley reports that it is. She has arrived on movie sets—as the director—only to be asked if she was someone’s girlfriend. “There are biases placed on women before they even open their mouths. My worst example was when I walked in and was asked about who I was dating instead of why I was on set.” She remembers that moment as a turning point.
Lea-Ann shares, “It’s shocking. We went through that, but we don’t expect today’s 20-something to be going through it. We thought we were past that.”
The “Chipping Away” Phenomena
According to Ashley, “Every single day something happens, small or large, in a woman’s career that chips away at her confidence ever so slightly. It causes, over time, the same feelings that I had.” As those incidents accumulate, it leads to a person feeling like a smaller version of herself. Over time, for some women this leads to exhaustion and they no longer want to fight for their career.
What started out as a short film back in 2013, has expanded into a feature length documentary. Lea-Ann explains, “As soon as we started getting answers and feedback from experts, we realized this needed to be a much bigger project.”
They envision Pioneers in Skirts as a documentary that tells a relatable story while it educates and empowers men and women in today’s workforce. They hope the tone of the movie is engaging. They want to share a story with an audience. “I don’t want the viewer to feel like they’re being talked at. We’re telling you a story and we want you to be a part of the conversation,” Ashley explains. Even though it’s a serious topic, the film is meant to be entertaining.
While they eventually hope to get wide distribution and enter the finished product in film festivals, they’re working on reaching out to another very specific audience too. “We have a huge push planned to show this film in universities,” Lea-Ann shares. “We really want them to show this as soon as possible and we’re working on that right now.”
Through this film, they hope to bring women—and men— together to support one another. Ashley offers, “We want to show women that what you’re thinking is what a lot of other women are thinking, there’s just no one voicing it.” The pair is thrilled to have an opportunity to be a safe place to share how women are overcoming career challenges. They look forward to sharing those lessons to keep others from being “chipped away” over the course of their careers.
During the most difficult points in Ashely’s career she felt herself becoming a smaller version of herself. She knew this wasn’t the person she wanted to be. Today, because of the lessons she’s learned during the making of this film, those moments that in the past were so damaging have a much less significant effect. “I can say that [Pioneers in Skirts] has changed me and now it’s my mission to explain what I’ve discovered to other people to try to prevent it from continuing to happen.”
To learn more about the film, its ongoing production and how you can be a part of bringing it to the big screen, visit Pioneers in Skirts.