Why Hollywood’s Gender Gap Exists, and How to Fix It

Women in TV or film are a lot like their counterparts in Silicon Valley: No one wants to take a chance on them.

Colleen DeBaise By Colleen DeBaise

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Claire Danes made a careful calculation when she decided to play bad-ass agent Carrie Mathison on Showtime’s “Homeland.” She was also auditioning for another role — that of secretary to Leonardo DiCaprio’s title character in the 2011 film “J. Edgar Hoover” — which she ultimately didn’t pursue.

She told Vogue magazine: ““I was like, ‘Do I want to play the secretary to the boss man or do I want to be the boss man?’ I want to be the boss man.”

It was a good choice: Both Danes and “Homeland” have won critical acclaim and accolades, including two Golden Globes for Danes. But it’s a choice few actresses have. There simply aren’t many roles depicting powerful women on TV or in film. In fact, when it comes to roles for women in general, the numbers are bleak: Female characters make up just 23% of leads or co-leads, and 31% of all speaking characters in popular films, according to 2014 research from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. When CEOs, doctors, politicians, judges or other power brokers are portrayed, more than 85% of the time it’s by a man, the same study found. And women (and girls) are two times more likely than males to be shown naked or in sexually revealing clothing.

There are many theories for why this is the case, starting with a basic one: Men dominate nearly all influential business positions in the behind-the-scenes aspect of creating, directing, producing and — importantly — funding television shows and Hollywood movies. As such, the male perspective influences nearly every character and plot line we (the consumer) see on the screen.

In contrast, when women are directors or producers, more women populate the screens. The percentage of females on set increases 21% in narratives and 24% in documentaries with females at the helm, according to 2014 data from the Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles. The problem, however, is that few women are actually at the helm. Despite recent critical success by directors Ava DuVernay (for “Selma”) and Angelina Jolie (for “Unbroken”), Hollywood’s gender gap is as wide as ever. Only 7 percent of the top 250 films at the U.S. box office in 2014 were directed by a woman, an annual study from San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found. Just 17% of women last year held key off-screen roles, including writers and producers, a figure that’s unchanged since the study began in 1998.

Director Ava DuVernay at the AFI Film Festival and SAG "BreakThrough" Filmmakers Party. (Credit: Marie Maye)

Director Ava DuVernay at the AFI Film Festival and SAG “BreakThrough” Filmmakers Party. (Credit: Marie Maye)

So why aren’t more women directing or producing or writing? The anecdotal evidence suggests that it’s not for lack of trying. There are plenty of women who desire to lead a film or show. The problem — much like it is for female tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, or women entrepreneurs in nearly any field, for that matter — is lack of access to capital.

Films and shows, much like all startups, are risky propositions. They can require investors — private individuals, professional backers and major studios or networks — to lay down enormous amounts of funding. There are no guarantees of success. In Silicon Valley, angels and VCs (the majority of whom are male) reduce their risk by taking bets on startups they personally understand, that are led by young geeky guys wearing hoodies, that “look” like other success stories, like male-run Facebook or Twitter.

In Hollywood, the investment decisions seem made the same way: Big backers (which we learned from the recent Sony hack are mostly white guys) minimize their risks by betting on plot lines they get; that don’t rattle traditional ideals; that appeal to a “broad” audience — a euphemism for “predominantly white male, but others might like it, too.” According to a recent New York Times article, foreign buyers in particular are dismissive of female-centric films. The thinking, apparently, is that female directors, protagonists and writers can’t possibly bring about a blockbuster movie. Many women in Hollywood would dispute that, pointing to the recent successes of “Hunger Games,” Bridesmaids” or even the animated “Frozen,” to name a few.

In this day and age, how incredible is it that only four female directors have even been nominated for an Academy Award? And this year is no exception: Despite buzz, neither DuVernay or Jolie received nods.

To get more diversity on screen, we need more diversity behind the screen. Enlightened men (and there are many) are helping to fix Hollywood’s gender inequality. But we need more backers — male and female — putting their financial heft behind female directors, stars and writers. A powerful industry that confronts a stunningly unfair situation, ultimately bringing about sweeping change and a happy ending for all? Sounds like the plot of a great Hollywood movie.

This Op-Ed also appeared on Inc.com.

In coming months, The Story Exchange will be exploring Hollywood’s gender gap, interviewing directors, producers, actors, writers and academics who are following the issue and advocating for change. Interested in being a part of our series? Drop us a line at info@thestoryexchange.org. 

Posted: January 19, 2015

Colleen DeBaiseWhy Hollywood’s Gender Gap Exists, and How to Fix It