Women make up 49.6% of the world’s population, roughly 49% of movie audiences, and, according to the latest Hollywood Diversity Report by the UCLA, 47.8% of lead roles in the top 200 theatrical and streaming film releases in 2020.
I’m not a statistician by any means, but the numbers, it seems, are making sense — and in Hollywood, that’s quite extraordinary.
In truth, the statistics today form a stark contrast from where they were in 2011, when women made up just 25.6% of lead roles in films. In the years since, women’s representation in film has seen steady growth, including an 8.1 percentage-point increase between 2017 and 2018. The report is quick to point out that across genders, the main characters we see on screen are still disproportionately white, although people of color have come a long way from a 10.5% share in lead roles in 2011 to 39.7% in 2020.
But even as women and minorities are seeing more and more of themselves on screen (a trend that is hopefully here to stay), the story is quite different behind the camera. Though 2020 has been hailed as a historic year for women directors, the numbers are still bleak: According to The Celluloid Ceiling, an annual report by the San Diego State University and the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, women made up just 23% of key roles behind the scenes — inching slightly up from 21% in 2019, but not much higher than where we were in 1998, at 17%.
In Front of the Camera, but Not Behind It
The study, which tracks women’s employment in directing, writing, producing, editing, and cinematography in top-grossing films over the last 23 years, lays down some pretty depressing math.
It found that in 2020 — a year of historic highs — two-thirds of the films studied employed fewer than five women in key production roles. Just under one-quarter of these films hired 5-9 women behind the scenes, and just 9% had a production crew with 10 or more women in it. In contrast, 5% employed 0-4 men, and the vast majority, or 71% of these films, had 10 or more men.
Women were most represented as producers (30%), editors (21%), and executive producers (21%). This is followed by directors (18%), and writers (17%), while women were least often hired as cinematographers (6%) — a profession that The Washington Post’s Steven Zeitchik describes as the most gender-biased job in Hollywood.
Speaking about the 2019 iteration of the annual report, which revealed similar historic (yet bleak) gains, Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film’s Dr. Martha Lauzen says, “It’s odd to talk about reaching historic highs when women remain so far from parity.”
These numbers have a very real effect on the movies the industry is able to make, and how. For instance, Dr. Lauzen’s findings show how women directors often mean more women behind the scenes, whether it’s in the writers’ room or the editing studio.
In film projects with at least one female director, 53% of the writers are also women (as compared to 8% with exclusively male directors) with 39% of editors also being women (a number that drops to 18% with exclusively male directors).
Another study, this time by the University of Southern California, found that when women were present in the writers’ room, women’s representation on screen was 50% higher than films written exclusively by men. The problem is, the study also found that men outnumbered women in the writers’ room 7 to 1.
But How Did We Get Here?
To be clear, it’s not for a lack of talent.
Few people know that in the early 20th century, women basically built and ran the film industry — producing, directing, writing, editing, and handling cameras in silent film productions. But by the ‘20s and ‘30s, the consolidation of the industry into leading studios shut out female filmmakers, and film historians are still trying to uncover the stories of these forgotten women today.
Moreover, roughly half of all graduates at film schools today are women. They represent some 51% of students at NYU’s School of the Arts and 46% USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. The talent is there — they’re just not being hired.
Big Studios Don’t Believe in Women
Though many women enter film schools, research suggests that a big problem is what happens after they graduate. “The statistics we see — the fall out is shocking. The talent is equal, and the opportunities just drop off for women completely,” Susan Sandler, a screenwriting professor and a faculty advisor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, says. “Studios are not trusting women with big budgets; they are not trusting women all across the board in terms of films that are studio-generated.”
“The bottom line is very simple: people don’t trust women to make money,” adds film producer Dan Cogan. For many, “you are more likely to be a woman nuclear engineer than you are a woman film director. You are also more likely to be a woman running a Fortune 500 company. It’s shameful.”
What’s more, this bias against women directors is a self-fulfilling prophecy, of sorts. So few women are being given the opportunity to lead film productions, and when they are, they’re often given smaller budgets and are marketed and distributed less than films by male directors. Thus, there are lower chances for them to make a name for themselves critically or commercially — even though their ROI tends to be higher than male-directed films (a fact that studios stubbornly turn a blind eye to).
Part of the problem are the enduring stereotypes about women in film, which play into our larger societal problem of pigeonholing men and women into specific jobs and roles.
“When we think about what a director or cinematographer looks like, when we see those pictures inside our heads, typically they are of a white male,” explains Dr. Lauzen. “We can’t discount the impact these subconscious images have on hiring decisions. People tend to hire others who look like they do.”
It’s a Boys’ Club
Another key factor to consider is that for the vast majority of the industry, the choice over which projects are greenlit and which stories can be told is still overwhelmingly dictated by white men.
In fact, last year’s Hollywood Diversity Report points out that 91% of studio heads are white, while 82% are male, with senior management more or less the same. As recently as 2015, the same report found that studio heads were 100% male. And this is a problem especially for project-based industries like TV and film, where hiring decisions and career progression tend to be less transparent.
A Million Tiny Cuts
The industry also fails women even before they graduate.
Drawing from hundreds of hours’ worth of interviews, award-winning actor, producer, and writer Naomi McDougall Jones points out that aspiring filmmakers who happen to be women are subjected to subtle and less-than-subtle discrimination in schools. This can come in the form of being told to watch a list of must-see films that were made entirely by white men, or speakers directly addressing male students more than female students.
Emily Geraghty, senior producer, editor, and shooter, recalls how in group film projects, it was common for female students to be relegated to organizing pre-production by male classmates, who would take on director and camera operator roles. In other cases, women were also completely left out of entire shoots. And worse, to stand up for yourself is to be difficult to work with.
These alienating experiences mean that though young women enter film school inspired and motivated to create stories to share with the world, many come out confused and demoralized.
And what’s more, Geraghty points out that when they get on location or on set, women professionals are often mistaken for amateurs or students.
A Long Way to Go
An evolutionary change, instead of a revolutionary shift, is the long view taken by The Celluloid Ceiling towards gender parity behind the camera — it involves promoting a change in culture and refusing to take our foot off the gas, no matter how long it takes.
And for this, key individuals and institutions are pushing steadily forward. For instance, Cogan partnered up with fellow producers Wendy Ettinger, Julie Parker Benello, and Geralyn Dreyfous to start Gamechanger Films, which exclusively finances women-directed movies.
Women in front of the camera are doing what they can to help, too. Actor, director, and producer Eva Longoria hopes to promote gender parity and racial diversity in her own work. “I always start filling up slots with women and people of color first, then if anything’s left, we will look elsewhere,” she tells The Guardian. “So instead of unconsciously ignoring women or people of color, I’m consciously hiring them.”
In 2019, prominent actors like Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Lopez, Reese Witherspoon, Gina Rodriguez, and Constance Wu also pledged to work with women directors in hopes of creating more films made with women in front of and behind the camera.
Actor Victoria Emslie, meanwhile, sought to address the age-old excuse studios often make: That they can’t find female directors. “As someone who has always jumped at problem solving, I wanted to take at least this one excuse off the table,” she tells the BBC, explaining how she created Primetime, a global database of women film professionals endorsed by The Geena Davis Institute and Time’s Up UK. And by women, she means all women — the list includes trans, intersex, and cis women, as well as those who aren’t women but who also experience gendered discrimination, like non-binary and gender non-conforming people.
Similar databases include The Topple List, which highlights the work of people of color and disabled film professionals.
And for those of us who want to be part of the evolutionary change for women in film from the comfort of our homes, a good place to start would be this year’s batch of women-directed films. From there, this list of 100 greatest films directed by women would be a delight to explore, too.