Hollywood's problem with women is so dire that last year the federal government began investigating gender bias in film and television. L.A. Weekly's coverage in 2015 contributed to an avalanche of bad press for an industry that has struggled to reflect American racial, ethnic and gender diversity.
Yet study after study in recent years has shown mediocre progress at best when it comes to hiring women in front of and behind the camera. The latest analysis of women in TV, “Boxed In,” shows that the share of speaking female characters on broadcast network programs — 43 percent — has remained exactly the same compared with nearly 10 years ago (the 2016-17 season versus 2007-08).
“Women are similarly stuck in behind-the-scenes positions on broadcast programs,” according to a summary. “Women accounted for 27 percent of individuals in powerful behind-the-scenes roles. This is only 1 percentage point higher than in 2006-07.”
The report was revealed this week ahead of Sunday's Emmy Awards at the Microsoft Theater downtown, television's biggest industry event. Study author Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the
Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, says that in other areas, including streaming and cable, women saw “modest” improvements.
Her study, in its 20th year, looked at 4,109 characters and 4,310 credits for programs on broadcast networks, basic and pay cable channels and streaming content in 2016-17. The long tail of streaming and cable has provided increased opportunity for women, the report found.
“In the past, the networks could boast that their programs employed higher ratios of women than programs on the other platforms,” Lauzen said via email. “This is no longer true. They have been overtaken by the streaming services.”
Some gains were measured. According to the report, the proportion of African-American women in on-screen network TV roles increased from 17 percent last year to 21 percent this year; for Asian-American women, the proportion went from 5 percent to 7 percent.
Forty percent of producers on broadcast networks, cable and streaming programs were women, according to the report; of writers, women were one-third (33 percent), and they were 28 percent of executive producers. All these figures represent an increase from the same time last year. The key to the healthy numbers, however, was the inclusion of cable and streaming hires. The last season “may be remembered as the year that the streaming services overtook broadcasters on the issue of gender diversity,” Lauzen said in a statement.
Shows with women at the top tended to represent women on-screen better, too, she said. According to the summary: “On programs with at least one woman creator, females comprised 51 percent of major characters. On these programs, the percentage of major female characters achieved parity with women’s representation in the U.S. population. By comparison, on programs with exclusively male creators, females accounted for 38 percent of major characters.”
However, Lauzen says Hollywood is still grappling with stereotypes.
“I am floored every year to see that programs are still more likely to identify the marital status of female characters than males, and more likely to identify the occupational status of male characters than female characters,” she said via email. “Age is another way that television continues to distort our perceptions of women. The majority of female characters are in their 20s and 30s, while the majority of males are in their 30s and 40s. The percentage of female characters drops dramatically from their 30s to their 40s. Interestingly, people tend to come into their personal and professional power in their 40s and 50s. When television programs keep female characters relatively young, they tend to prevent those characters from aging into positions of power.”
Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociology professor at Biola University and author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism, says the lack of progress in network TV is “something that needs to be remedied.”
But until audiences vote with their eyeballs and turn away from programs that don't represent America, she says, the song will remain the same. “Networks care about the bottom line,” she says. “They're not going to change for moral reasons.”