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Women in the world film industry


By Arindam Bhunia

“A woman is like a tea bag—you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water.”

                                                                                                                                                   —Eleanor Roosevelt.

While the film industry still struggles with gender inequality today, the history of early and silent cinema is filled with female producers, directors and writers. When it comes to tackling gender equality, Hollywood always seems to drag its feet.  Most people would be surprised to learn that gender segregation plays out at different levels of the film industry, where behind-the-scenes and onscreen inequality runs rampant. Women were in the movie game from the very start. The first woman to direct a film was almost certainly Alice Guy-Blaché, who worked for Gaumont in Paris. She began to make films in 1896. There is an existence of an “inclusion crisis,” from C-level officers to behind-the-scenes employees, says Stacy L. Smith, PhD, associate professor at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. For instance, only 16 percent of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 100 domestic grossing films of 2016 were women. According to report, in 2017 Women comprised 4% of directors on the top 100 films. In the top 100 films, women represented 29% of all sole protagonists 76% of all female characters in the top 100 films were white. 14% of all female characters were black, 6% were Asian American, and 3% were Latina.



Top 100 grossing films:

  • Females comprised 29% of all sole protagonists, 37% of major characters, and 32% of speaking characters.
  • 76% of all female characters were white.
  • 14% of all female characters were black. 6% were Asian American. 3% were Latina.
  • In films with at least one woman director or writer, females comprised 57% of protagonists, 38% of major characters, and 38% of speaking characters.
  • Most female characters were in their 20s (23%) and 30s (32%), while most male characters were in their 30s (31%) and 40s (30%).
  • 54% of female characters had an unknown marital status (compared to 68% of males).
  • 78% of female characters had an identifiable job or occupation (compared to 86% of males). A substantially larger portion of male characters were seen in their work setting, actually working (61% males vs. 45% females).
  • Female characters were more likely to have goals related to their personal lives (46% vs. 25% males) and less likely to have work-related goals (54% vs. 75%).



Top 100 grossing films:

  • Women accounted for 14% of all directors, writers, executive producers, producers, editors, and cinematographers.
  • Women comprised 4% of directors.
  • Women accounted for 11% of writers.
  • Women comprised 13% of executive producers, 19% of producers, 14% of editors, and 3% of cinematographers.


Top 250 grossing films:

  • Women comprised 7% of directors.
  • Women accounted for 13% of writers.
  • Women represented 17% of executive producers, 24% producers, 17% editors, 5% cinematographers, 3% composers, 8% supervising sound editors, 4% sound designers.
  • 58% of the films had no female executive producers. 34% had no female producers, 79% had no female editors, 96% had no female cinematographers, 97% had no female composers, 93% had no female supervising sound editors, and 97% had no female sound designers.
  • Women were most likely to work in the documentary (24%) and drama genres (20%), and least likely to work in the action (11%) and horror genres (12%).

Of the top-grossing 1,000 films from 2007 to 2017:

  • 4% of the directors were female–a ratio of 23.8 male directors for every female director.
  • Of the 612 individual directors, only 5.7% were women–a gender ratio of 16.5 male helmers to every female.
  • 80% of women made only one movie in the years studied, while 54.8% of men worked only once.



Of the top 100 films of 2017:

  • Just 31.4% of characters were female
  • Characters from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups were 29.2% of all characters, which is not different from 2015
  • LGBT-identified characters represented 1.1% of all speaking characters, which is not different from 2015
  • Characters with disabilities filled only 2.7% of all speaking roles, which is not different from 2015


Gender stereotypes are alive and well in 2016 top‐grossing films. Females were more likely than males to be young adults, sexualized, and shown in domesticated roles such as parents and relational partners. Some of these patterns interact with age, with 13 to 20 year old females and 21 to 39 year old females equally likely to be sexualized. The class of women most likely to be marginalized in movies was women 40 to 64 years of age. This is no surprise, yet it may contribute to and reinforce ageism and sexism in screenwriting as well as industry casting and hiring.

The first variable was the on screen gender distribution of speaking roles.18 Films with at least one female writer had a significantly higher percentage of girls and women (34.8%) on screen than did films with only male writers (25.9%). These findings suggest that female screenwriters may be more likely to include girls and women in their storylines than male screenwriters, reflecting the adage “write what you know.” It may also be the case that female writers are more likely to be hired to pen female‐driven stories. Only 30.2% of the 30,835 speaking characters evaluated were female across the 700 top‐grossing films from 2007 to 2016. This calculates to a gender ratio of 2.3 to 1. Only 11% of 700 films had gender‐balanced casts or featured girls/women in roughly half (45‐54.9%) of the speaking roles.  A total of 21 of the 100 top films of 2016 featured a female lead or roughly equal co lead. This is similar to the percentage in 2007 (20%), but a 7% decrease from the 2013 sample (28%).


Women produced, wrote and edited films in vast numbers. Stars who presented themselves on screen as ringletted sweethearts or carefree flappers were often doing business deals and running movie sets in reality. So can the industry’s problem of entrenched gender inequality be fixed? It can, according to Geena Davis, Oscar-winning actress, advocate, and founder and chair of the non-profit Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. In a recent  News article, she said: “When the needle moves on onscreen representation for the first time in seven decades that will be historic. It’s the one area of great gender disparity that can be fixed instantly. We can absolutely fix it overnight, the next TV show — the next movie can be gender balanced.”

Breaking the celluloid ceiling must start where the ceiling is — at upper echelons, where senior management sets the “tone at the top.” Studio executives should make gender balance a priority and drive it through all levels of their organization. If successful, mainstreaming gender equality could be one of Hollywood’s greatest stories ever told.


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