Where Are The Women? Report Finds Drop In Female Representation On TV

The U.S. Census Bureau says just over half of the nation’s population is female. A slight majority, but a majority all the same. But a new report says that majority is not reflected in the television we watch.

It comes from the Center For The Study Of Women In Television And Film at San Diego State University. The Center’s 21st annual “Boxed In” report found fewer women working on either side of the camera.

The report is chock-full of numbers, so let’s break them down.

“Crisis on Earth-X, Part 4.”  Danielle Panabaker, Melissa Benoist, Emily Bett Rickards. Photo: Robert Falconer/The CW — © 2017 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The Big Picture

The researchers looked at single episodes of series airing during the 2017-18 season on all five broadcast networks, 19 cable channels (basic and premium) and three streaming services. What they found:

  • 68% of those programs had more male characters than females
  • 40% of all speaking roles were female characters
  • 27% of behind-the-scenes staff, from creators to directors of photography, were women

The male to female character ratio didn’t change from the previous year. But there was a two point drop in the number of female speaking roles. And the number of women working behind the scenes dropped by one point.

Breaking It Down – Women On Screen

The Day Reagan Was Shot
“Timeless” – “The Day Reagan Was Shot.” Abigail Spencer, Claudia Doumit. Source: NBC

It’s no secret that all of us here at Fangirlish LOVE Timeless. Its women are a major reason for that. Or perhaps I should say, they’re six major reasons. We root for historian Lucy Preston, clairvoyant computer whiz Jiya and Special Agent Denise Christopher. We boo and hiss at Rittenhouse agents Emma Whitmore, Jessica Logan and Carol Preston – even as we enjoy their machinations.

Oh, and we cannot leave out the historical women characters: Hedy Lamarr, Harriet Tubman, Katherine Johnson, Josephine Baker… the list goes on and on.

All of these women are some of the reasons why NBC was the broadcast network with the highest percentage of female characters in speaking roles. Here’s how the networks ranked:

  • NBC – 44%
  • ABC – 43%
  • FOX – 40%
  • CW  – 39%
  • CBS – 37%

More on CBS’ low numbers in just a little bit. First, let’s turn to cable, where representation was a bit lower. Women accounted for 40 percent of all speaking characters on cable programs, a four-point increase from the previous year.

“The Handmaid’s Tale.” Source: Hulu

On the streaming side, despite female-centric shows like The Handmaid’s Tale, there was a drop in female representation. Last season, women made up 39 percent of all speaking characters on these shows — down five points from the previous year.

Breaking It Down – Women Behind The Scenes

“Arrow” showrunner Beth Schwartz in the press room at San Diego Comic-Con 2018. Source: Fangirlish

The CW outperformed the other broadcast networks in the number of women in behind-the-scenes roles. New Arrow showrunner Beth Schwartz is one of many women in the roles of creators, executive producers and producers, writers, directors, editors and directors of photography at The CW. But that number is still low when compared to the general population.

Breaking it down by network, these are the percentages of women working in these roles:

  • CW  – 36%
  • ABC – 33%
  • NBC – 25%
  • FOX – 25%
  • CBS – 23%

As with on-air speaking roles, CBS trails the other broadcast networks in female representation. Recent events may shed some light on why.

On September 9, CBS CEO Les Moonves was forced out after being accused of sexual harassment and assault by multiple women. Three days later, Designing Women creator Linda Bloodworth Thomason published a scathing account of her experience with him, saying that while he never sexually harassed her, he kept her shows off the air for seven years. “I am happy to dance on his professional grave,” she wrote in an essay that piles horror upon horror, describing a misogynist network executive who only wanted to deal with women he found sexually appealing.

Moonves has denied the harassment and assault accusations, but as of this writing has not responded to Bloodworth Thomason. Time’s Up is calling on CBS to review its culture and make changes, including more diverse hiring.

It’s not the first time for such calls. We heard them a year ago, as #MeToo filtered into the national consciousness. So far the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film has found no change in behind-the-scenes representation of women in broadcast TV over the past three years.

Westworld Season 1; Episode 8. Thandie Newton. Source: HBO

Turning to representation on cable programs: As with female characters, there was an increase in women on show staffs. Women made up 28 percent of behind-the-scenes staff for basic and premium cable shows like Westworld, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. This was up one point from the previous year, and a point better than the 27 percent average for all platforms.

But among streaming services, female representation dropped once again. Women made up 27 percent of behind-the scenes staff for Amazon, Hulu and Netflix — once again, a five percent drop from the previous year.

'Orange is the New Black' Season 6 Review: This Show Has Run It's Course
“Orange is the New Black.” Source: Netflix

A Vicious Cycle

Dr. Martha Lauzen is the executive director of the Center for the Study of Women In Television and Film. She has been researching women in media for more than 20 years.

Little has changed in that time.

This year’s percentage of speaking female roles is just two points above what it was in the 1997-98 TV season. The report’s historical trends for behind-the-scenes roles only go back to 2015, but those numbers have also remained stagnant. The number of women creating television shows is lower than the number of them acting in those shows, and it is far lower than the female share of the U.S. population.

“We will see these behind-the-scenes employment disparities reflected at the Emmys next Monday night, and ultimately there will be fewer women on stage being celebrated for excellence in their respective craft areas,” Lauzen told City News Service.

This year’s Emmy nominees include 39 women in six acting categories, compared to 38 men in the same number of categories. But the gender gap really shows among the nominations for directing and writing. Out of 26 nominees in four directing categories, only two are female. Women fare better in the four writing categories, with seven of 23 nominations.

“It’s a vicious cycle of underemployment which results in less recognition which, in turn, reinforces skewed gender ratios behind the scenes,” Lauzen said.

Is There Hope?

Breaking that pattern of underemployment will be key to improving female representation. The report offers some hope to that end. It said women working behind-the-scenes fared best as producers. That is an encouraging finding. Producing is a major step on the way to becoming a showrunner. The study also found programs with at least one woman executive producer had better female representation on both sides of the camera.

The “Boxed In” report contains much more information on character demographics. They include race and ethnicity, age, and character roles – that is, work versus domestic roles. You can read it for yourself here.

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