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Lorene Scafaria directs Hustlers, about a group of scheming strippers played by (from left) Lili Reinhart, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, and Constance Wu.Barbara Nitke/The Associated Press

At the glitzy galas of the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, Marie Curie will discover radium, Harriet Tubman will lead her people to freedom and a posse of scamming strippers will turn the tables on their Wall Street clients.

If that sounds to you like a whole lot more girl power than your average film fest, you would be right: TIFF’s attempts to address the gender imbalance so typical of the movie industry are particularly noticeable in this year’s gala selections, the big-ticket events unveiling movies that are stuffed with red-carpet-ready stars. This year, nine of the 20 galas launch films directed by women while seven are stories where the protagonist or the ensemble is female. That list includes Radioactive, an unorthodox bio-pic about Curie directed by graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi and Harriet, a more traditional biography of Tubman, the slave turned abolitionist, by director Kasi Lemmons. And Lorene Scafaria directs Hustlers, about the scheming strippers played by Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez and Cardi B.

TIFF 2019: Updated – The Globe’s latest ratings and reviews of movies screening at the festival

“It’s exciting to see a lot of the galas and special presentations have female directors and films about women,” said Melissa Silverstein, founder and publisher of the Women and Hollywood advocacy group and website. “That’s the place where the rubber hits the road … the films that are going to get the attention.”

A year after TIFF signed the “50/50 by 2020” gender-equity pledge, Silverstein is generally impressed with the festival’s track record: “You get a sense from TIFF that this is a position that comes from the top. It’s how they program films.”

Still, only 36 per cent of the films at TIFF this year were directed or co-directed by women, up from 35 per cent last year, but well below 50/50. Despite its title, the pledge does not set parity as a target nor suggest quotas, but demands transparency on the issue. The document (which was launched by a French group at the Cannes film festival last year and then transplanted to North America) asks festivals to release data for the number of female directors in their lineups and also make public the race and gender of their board members, jury members and programmers.

By the standard of many festivals, TIFF is doing well. The Venice Film Festival, which opens the week before TIFF, seems unconcerned by the #MeToo movement that swept through the industry after the Harvey Weinstein scandal of 2017 and this year has programmed a film by convicted sex offender Roman Polanski. It has only two female-directed films in its 21-film competition, while the New York Film Festival, which opens in late September, will hit a new high of six in its 29-title main slate.

Offering 245 feature films at a public event, TIFF is so much larger than its competitors, and has more room to manoeuvre. Still, it also does better in its only competitive category: This year, the 10 titles competing for a $20,000 prize in the Platform program feature four directed by women. And half the members of its programming team are women.

All this counting might sound depressingly picayune, threatening to turn art into political point-scoring or raising the spectre of quotas, but it is only through recording the raw numbers that advocates for women in film can expose just how sexist the industry remains, from the director’s chair to the festival programmer’s office. Notoriously, less than 10 per cent of Hollywood’s top grossing films every year are directed by women and less than a third feature female protagonists.

“It’s easy to blame Hollywood, but art-house movies do the same thing,” said TIFF co-head Cameron Bailey, citing cinema’s preference for action over emotion or its dramatization of sexual violence as examples of gender bias that can appear in any genre. Meanwhile, the festival circuit’s tendency to anoint the “genius” or the “master” is more likely to promote male auteurs.

“For four or five years, we have been having conversations with the programming team about gender and gender parity, about why it was considered normal there were so few women,” Bailey said. “We didn’t set a target, we just said, ‘Let’s pay attention to this.’”

TIFF has also been working on what is known as the pipeline problem: When the call goes out for films that might be included in the festival, it receives far fewer responses from female directors than from male ones. While 36 per cent of the titles it has programmed for 2019 were directed by women, only 32 per cent of the films submitted for consideration were directed by women, reflecting discrepancies in the industry. Film schools graduate equal numbers of men and women, and women create lots of documentaries and shorts, but they are much less likely to be handed control of bigger-budget movies.

“Access begins to change as you go up the budget ladder and that is where the pipeline needs to open up,” Bailey said.

TIFF’s Share Her Journey program is supposed to address that: Since it was launched two years ago as a five-year commitment to gender and diversity initiatives, it has raised $2.5-million of a $3-million target. This new money is spent on various workshops, internships and mentoring and networking opportunities and has reached 126 mainly young female talents in 2018, and will have served another 100 this year.

Of course, the best thing a festival can ever do for an aspiring filmmaker is to program her film.