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Thursday June 1st

Award-winning UNC graduate fights gender stereotypes through film

<p>Ashley Maria and Lea-Ann Berst are the creators of "Pioneers in Skirts," a film about achieving gender parity in the workplace. Photo courtesy of Ashley Maria.&nbsp;</p>
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Ashley Maria and Lea-Ann Berst are the creators of "Pioneers in Skirts," a film about achieving gender parity in the workplace. Photo courtesy of Ashley Maria. 

When filmmaker Ashley Maria graduated from UNC, she entered a workforce of surprised glances and misconceptions. 

Co-workers on movie sets often assumed she was someone’s girlfriend rather than the director of the film, and when she won a Directors Guild of America award for student filmmaking in 2010, people dismissed her achievement when they learned it was in the women’s category. 

“You walk into a room and expect to just focus on the work, but other people don’t see it that way,” Maria said. 

Maria graduated from UNC in 2008 and attended the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California for her master's degree. She is currently based in California, where she teaches a directing class at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

She knew even as an undergraduate that she wanted to pursue film production. But following this passion wasn’t as straightforward as she’d imagined. 

Receiving the DGA award in 2010 launched Maria into a years-long journey to better understand and confront the gender-stereotyping that put her a step behind her male co-workers. She joined forces with her mother, Lea-Ann Berst, to create “Pioneers in Skirts,” for which she recently received the Downtown LA Best New Director Award. 

The film examines workplace discrimination as experienced by female CEOs, entrepreneurs and teenage engineers. From maternity leave policies to blatant skepticism, these women all faced some kind of workplace discrimination. “Pioneers in Skirts” uses these narratives to share new perspectives on gender stereotyping.

Berst, producer of the "Pioneers in Skirts,” said her daughter’s experience with gender stereotyping mirrored her own, and she wanted to help Maria challenge these societal conventions.

“We would love for this film to be a catalyst of productive conversation,” Berst said. 

In addition to educating the public, the production of “Pioneers in Skirts” was an important learning experience for both Maria and Berst. The film features the testimonies of women facing gender discrimination around the country. By interviewing these women, Maria was reminded that she wasn’t alone in her experiences.

“It has absolutely nothing to do with me and everything to do with our culture,” Maria said. “You’ve got to stop blaming women. When you tell women that they’re not confident enough, you basically tell them that they need to fix themselves.” 

Berst also said the people she met during production reinforced her determination to raise awareness of the issue.

“Meeting these people and hearing how they dealt with it and seeing how determined they were to change things, I found a new power within me,” Berst said.

One of these women is UNC sophomore Madeline Yara, a chemistry and music major. When Maria and Berst began working with her, she was a member of a middle school robotics team. Interested in the pressures of the male-dominated engineering field, Maria and Berst followed Yara and her teammates as they transitioned from the all-girls middle school team to a co-ed high school team. 

Yara said when she watched the film, she was surprised by the confidence she displayed on screen.

“I saw myself being more assertive than I thought I was,” she said. 

Though the film tells the specific story of discrimination against women, the themes are universal, Berst said. 

“It applies to everyone who’s underrepresented,” Berst said. “It’s just a shame that anybody who achieves a certain distinction has to have a pat on their head and work harder because they’re being judged long before they should.” 

“Pioneers in Skirts” is not yet available online, but is available at various screenings around the country. The team hopes to offer the film through online streaming and DVD.

Maria and Berst are now traveling to screenings around the country. Berst said the film has had a visible positive impact, inspiring diversity initiatives within many of the companies who hosted screenings, as well as piquing the interest of individual audience members. 

“Your journey into gender equity starts somewhere,” Maria said. “Awareness to what’s happening around you is the first step.”


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