Jana Memel was born with both dyslexia and an eye disorder that left her with almost no depth perception. Yet despite failing at “nearly everything” as a child, she has gone on to be a two-time Academy Award winning producer in an entertainment industry known for being biased against women. In fact, despite progress in recent years, new research by the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film has found that in 2021, women comprised 18% of directors, 19% of writers, 21% of editors, 25% of executive producers, 31% of producers and only 7% of cinematographers.
The study also shows that women are less likely to pursue careers in film and television. This lack of diversity not only limits the range of stories being told, but also perpetuates harmful stereotypes and biases.
Jana brings a unique perspective on how women can not only overcome the barriers and biases that have tilted the playing field against women, but how to actually level the field. While her advice was given in the context of the film and television industry, much of it is equally relevant for women forging careers in other arena’s that have been historically dominated by men.
1: Don’t dilute who you are, maximize it.
Early in her career, as a development executive, Jana often worked seven days a week, always on site at call and at wrap at day’s end. After agreeing to work one Saturday, a senior male colleague pinned her up against a wall and told her that because he had a family and couldn’t work weekends, she couldn’t either as it made him look bad. “He was trying to intimidate me,” Jana recalls, “but I wasn’t going to let him win. I kept working weekends.”
While Jana’s experience is unique, the need for women to be boldly decide how they want to show up, and not to shrink themselves down, is universal. Letting other people define you will derail you. So don’t cower to cowards or focus on the barriers. Rather focus on what you need to do to push through or go around them. “Sometimes you have to go around instead of following a straight line through,” said Jana.
2: Expand your network and find role models
A master storyteller, beyond her two Academy wins, Jana has produced three films in total that have won Academy Awards and an additional eight that have received Oscar nominations. Executive Vice President of Brand Storytelling & Schools of Entertainment at the Academy of Art University, Jana believes that it starts with the networks that emerge in film school. Getting women into key crew positions in school is crucial to the networking that goes on after school. This also involves helping male students get comfortable working with women as their equals or bosses.
As Jana says: “If you listened to the thank you speeches at this year’s Academy Awards, you will have heard teams saying it all started in their dorm rooms back in university. As I see it, the key to changing the stats on women in entertainment starts with the networks we create in film school. Getting women into key crew positions in school is crucial to the networking that goes on after school. We hire from the tribe we’re in. Accustoming male students to working with women as their equals or even bosses, allows women to become part of the tribe from the beginning.”
“Actively research and look around to find examples of people whose careers you’d like to have. Find them on LinkedIn or Instagram. Follow them. Reach out. Be specific about what you want and what your goal is. Learn about their back story. They likely had to overcome obstacles every bit as big as your own, if not bigger. Let their courage inspire your own.”
As much as we think of entertainment as an undifferentiated mass – there are at least four hundred different groups. Make it your job to network. Create a list of everyone you know. Think about who they know. Building a strong and diverse network is not something that just happens. You have to make it happen.
3: Back your boldest ambitions
Women have a greater tendency to bend themselves into a pretzel to be who others want them to be. But you will never achieve what you’re capable of if you’re making yourself smaller in order to make others feel good about themselves. “Successful women in entertainment have succeeded by maximizing who they are.”
Sure, many women can experience imposter syndrome. But if the negative voice of self-doubt is ringing in your head, dial up the voice of the woman you are and want to be. A mentee of Jana’s recently shared how she had been approached by a documentary film maker in New York who asked her what she wanted to do on his project. The young woman was considering by saying she’d be happy with any role just to be part of the production, but Jana challenged her asking, “What role would you really like to have? Assistant Associate Producer? Well tell him that!”
The mentee took the advice. She got the role.
Sure, don’t be entitled and show respect for those who’ve done more than you, but own your value and back your talent. “Don’t operate from the assumption that people won’t think you’re good enough. Operate from the assumption that they know you are,” said Jana. “You can’t expect to get what you don’t ask for.”
So back your boldest ambitions, not your loudest doubts. Don’t ask for what you think you might be able to get, ask for what you really want.
4: Lean on your strengths; but don’t rest on them. Get better!
“There’s three things I hear about myself all the time,” says Jana. “I’m tough but worth it. I’m brutally honest. I’m scary until people get to know me.” She has no issue being characterized that way. “But the backlash doesn’t stop just because you’re good. You need to be really good at what you do. Women have to be A+. So be A+.”
There are rules you need to learn about being a writer. “Whether its film or television, you have to learn how to write things that directors and producers want to make,” Jana advises. “So learn the rules. Hone your craft. Strive to be excellent. And keep leaning into your unique talents, but just don’t rest on them, continue to grow them.”
5: Don’t be timid in asking for help
“Asking for help is not about being helpless,” says Memel. “It’s about getting better. None of us can get to where we want to go by ourselves. Look around you. Who can help you in some way? Don’t be too proud to share what you don’t understand or are struggling to figure out. Being vulnerable is not being weak. Instead of saying ‘I can’t’ know that there is always a way that you ‘can’. But sometimes you need others to help you bridge that gap.”
6: Lift other women as you climb
“I have a friend who works in a writer’s room. She says it’s interesting to see the women who reach out to fill the rooms and women who don’t,” says Memel, who believes that women have a responsibility to be role models for the next generation and to actively participate. “I make it my job to mentor young people,” she said. Her later offer to speak to my daughter who’s at the starting point in forging a career in film and entertainment speaks to her sincerity. “We need to get more women in places where they can hire.” That requires every woman to do our bit to lift other women.
7: Reframe failure as opportunity to build muscle for life
My entire childhood was failing at everything,” said Jana, recounting her childhood in the 60s when there was very little knowledge about dyslexia. “I have had many fears in life but failing is not one of them,” she said.
The lesson: Failure is an event, not a person. It’s what you do with your failure that shapes who you are.
8: Commit to action, knowing nothing is permanent.
“I meet a lot of young people who are worried about taking the wrong path,” says Memel. “I have to remind them that nothing has to be forever. You can change your mind.” What matters most is that you’re in action, moving forward, toward something that inspires you and gives you energy. Every experience on that journey is helping you grow and often the ones that are the most difficult provide the greatest fodder for creativity. Sometimes the very toughest situations can bring out the very best in ourselves.
Which brings me to Memel’s final bit of advice…
9: Practice Chutzpah!
“You don’t need anything other than chutzpah,” she says. “Sure, you work forty hours a week. But what are you doing with the other forty? Building your career is a full-time job.”
“We live in a time when you can make a movie on your phone. This is awesome. But it can also be overwhelming. So break it down into small daily actions. Meet up with a director. Join a group. Write something creative. Meet up with a director. Teach yourself editing skills. Connect with someone who is three steps ahead of you.”
Most of all, keep putting yourself out there and give yourself permission to learn as you go and not get it all right first time every time. “We need to learn we can do it,” says Jana. And when our doubts start taking over, we need to reparent that part of ourselves that thinks we don’t have what it takes.
“Male or female, you have to be willing to put it all on the line for what you believe in,” says Jana. “I make myself do something I’m afraid of every day. You have to learn that you have it within yourself to achieve anything.”
Margie Warrell is a women’s leadership advocate who writes and speaks on leading change with courage. Listen to her Live Brave Podcast, connect on Linked in or Instagram or read You’ve Got This!: The Life Changing Power of Trusting Yourself