Why the 'Radical Underrepresentation' of Women in Hollywood Isn't Changing

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While accepting her award for Best Supporting Actress at Sunday night’s Golden Globe Awards, Regina King made a promise to employ a crew of at least 50 percent women in her film productions. She also challenged others in Hollywood to match her efforts, and it was a familiar refrain: The need for better representation in film, for better stories about women created by women, has been raised by women in Hollywood for decades. That dialogue is no longer just a tête-à-tête among frustrated colleagues; there’s been some progress. Unsurprisingly, though, the number of women in hiring positions remains dismal. No wonder Patricia Arquette was psyched to shout out Escape at Dannemora cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné at the Globes—“A woman DP!” Arquette yelled during her acceptance speech.

“Celluloid Ceiling,” a new report from San Diego State University—part of their annual Study of Women in Television and Film—found that in 2018, among the top grossing films, women accounted for only 20 percent of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers. Only 1 percent of those films employed 10 or more women in those roles, while 74 percent employed 10 or more men. Since 1998, the study has analyzed the employment of women in the top 250 domestic grossing films each year. In those 21 years, there’s been minimal improvement.

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Along with the report, the executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, Dr. Martha M. Lauzen, noted, “The study provides no evidence that the mainstream film industry has experienced the profound positive shift predicted by so many industry observers over the last year. This radical underrepresentation is unlikely to be remedied by the voluntary efforts of a few individuals or a single studio.” To get insight on the numbers and why Hollywood is so stagnant, Jezebel spoke with Lauzen via email. Our interview has been slightly edited for clarity.

JEZEBEL: What would you say has been the most illuminating statistic in the history of the “Celluloid Ceiling” reports?

DR. MARTHA M. LAUZEN: The study has shown how difficult it can be to change an industry that lacks a will to change. In 2018, women comprised 20 percent of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. This is just 1 percentage point above the 19 percent achieved in 2001. In 2018, women accounted for 8 percent of directors. This is 1 percentage point below the 9 percent achieved in 1998. “Celluloid Ceiling” has been very helpful in disassembling a number of myths about women in Hollywood. One myth is that the employment situation for women working in film has improved greatly, based on the anecdotal stories of a few women. The numbers have shown that has not been the case for most women working in film.

Another more global myth that circulated for years was that women didn’t support one another. The studies have shown this simply is not true. Films with at least one female director employ substantially higher percentages of women working as writers, editors, cinematographers, and composers than films with exclusively male directors. For example, on films with at least one female director, women comprised 47 percent of editors. On films with exclusively male directors, women accounted for 19 percent of editors. On films with at least one female director, women comprised 71 percent of writers. On films with exclusively male directors, women accounted for 13 percent of writers. If more women worked as directors, more women would work in other behind-the-scenes roles.

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There have been more than a few studies recently about a lack of women in Hollywood despite headlines about their successes—the Wonder Woman effect. You call it a “radical underrepresentation.” Are studies like this useful?

Quantitative studies are incredibly effective and powerful in grounding the public and industry dialogue in the objective reality.

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Why haven’t we seen any improvement?

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When individuals in an industry don’t perceive the underemployment of members of a group, in this case women, as a problem, they aren’t going to take steps to alleviate that problem. That has been the case for women working in the film industry. There has been no real will to change on the part of many of the major players in the business. The will to change is foundational for any and all action. The groups that have recently joined the discussion, such as the Time’s Up initiative, have been successful in raising the volume of dialogue on the issue, but we have yet to see that attention translate into changes in the employment figures.

Do you think there’s a miscommunication between what the public views as “female-led” and what your study shows? There’s a real difference between seeing more women on screen, or seeing women actors take on more dynamic, autonomous character roles and watching a movie featuring women that is also directed and produced by women.

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The on-screen world is constructed by those working behind the scenes. While there are exceptions, people tend to create what they know. When women work as directors in film and as creators and executive producers in television, we see more female characters on screen and more women working in other positions of power behind the scenes.

In the press release for your report, you argue, “What is needed is a will to change, ownership of the issue—meaning the effort originates with the major players, transparency, and the setting of concrete goals. Will, ownership, transparency, and goals are the keys to moving forward.” How can that be realized?

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The bottom line is that if the industry had the will to substantially increase the numbers of women working in key behind-the-scenes roles, it could be accomplished within a couple of years. Efforts by individuals such as Ryan Murphy have demonstrated that parity for a variety of underrepresented groups can be reached in a relatively short amount of time. This is not a pipeline problem. There is nothing stopping an organization such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)—whose only members are the major studios—from setting up an independent organization charged with the responsibility of achieving greater inclusion in the business. This organization could serve as a leader by setting clearly outlined expectations or goals for hiring, tracking progress on a regular basis, and making that information public. I wrote in a guest column for Variety a couple of years ago on this topic.

The number of women directors you brought up is especially damning. The number is 1 percent less than it was in 1998, when the “Celluloid Ceiling” study began. Why is it so low?

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The current voluntary efforts of a few individuals or even a single studio fail to acknowledge the magnitude of this problem. Without a large-scale effort mounted by the major players—the studios, talent agencies, guilds, and associations—we are unlikely to see meaningful change. The distance from 8 percent to some semblance of parity is simply too vast.

The number of women cinematographers has remained almost stagnant for the entirety of this study. Why do you think that is?

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Stereotypes can be very powerful in influencing the type of individuals that are hired for certain roles. If those in the industry think cinematographers look like older white men, those are the individuals who will be hired for the position.

Are you shocked by any of your findings?

No. I believe it was Plato who said something like those who tell the stories rule society. Filmmakers wield a great deal of power as our cultural storytellers. Changing the gender ratios of our storytellers will change our culture and our world.

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About the author

Maria Sherman

this is my day job: senior writer at jezebel