Television Is Less Sexist Than Movies — But Not By Much

The latest Women’s Media Center report on the representation of women in media occupations is out. The results suggest that television is doing somewhat better than film in getting women involved in the production process and in representing them on-screen — but in neither case are the numbers anything to write home about.

When it comes to when we see on-screen, women are definitely doing better on television than they are in the movies. In the 2010–2011 television season, 41 percent of fictional characters on television were women (down slightly from the all-time high of 43 percent in 2007–2008). The report notes of women in television that “Female characters were typically younger than male counterparts, white, and more likely to have an undefined employment status,” which I thought was interesting to pick up on: it’s not just that female characters are less defined by their jobs than men, but that it might not be clear what, if anything, they do. In 2008 and 2009, by contrast, just 32.8 percent of speaking characters in movies were women. In both media, the number of female characters in a product goes up if there are women creating or on the writing staff of a show or writing or directing the movie.

When it comes to overall employment, women are also better off than television than in movies. The number of women in what the report defines as “key behind-the-scenes roles” in movies has stayed relatively flat, from 17 percent in 1998, to 17 percent in 2005, 16 percent in 2009, 16 percent in 2010, and 18 percent in 2011. And of the 250 top-grossing movies of 2011, 5 percent of directors, 14 percent of writers, 18 percent of EPs, 25 percent of producers, 20 percent of editors, 4 percent of cinematographers were women. By contrast women seem to be doing somewhat better in television. In the 2010 to 2011 season, women made up 18 percent of creators, 22 percent of executive producers, 37 percent of producers, 15 percent of writers, 11 percent of directors, 20 percent of editors, and 4 percent of directors of photography.

That’s not to say that women are making durable gains in any of these fields. The number of women directing the 250 top-grossing movies has fallen from 9 percent in 1998 to 5 percent in 2011. Between the 2009–2010 season of television and the 2010–2011 season of the television, the number of women writers fell from 29 percent to 15 percent — and that’s down from 35 percent in the 2006–2007 season. And women aren’t necessarily helping other women out. The number of female producers was higher than the percentage of directors, writers, editors, and cinematographers in every year the study examined. And the same was true for television, where the rates of women creating, writing, directing, and editing shows never matches or exceeds the rates at which women produce them.


I sometimes feel like I’m banging my head against the wall reporting these kinds of numbers. But until it’s clear to Hollywood both that it’s persistently underrepresenting women and that said underrepresentation means a lot of us aren’t getting content we’d like to pay for, we have to keep saying it. These are not problems that are going away on their own. We’re stuck with them unless people do something very intentional and serious to try to fix them. Fox’s new Diverse Writers Program is a step in the right direction, but helping mentor 10 writers a year is just a start.