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How Hollywood’s inequity is creating a social and economic crisis

Pipeline Equity founder Katica Roy discusses the effects to our society when the greatest films hush the voices of 51% of the population and marginalize the 39.5% of the country that is not white.

How Hollywood’s inequity is creating a social and economic crisis
[Photo: Richard Harbaugh – Handout/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images]

Hollywood drives the narrative around who matters in our society. So when zero women were nominated to the 2020 Oscar’s best director category, we should have been stunned, although homogeneity does run deep in the roots of the film industry.

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In the Oscar’s 92-year history, only five women have been nominated for best director. As of December 2019, men represent 68% of Oscar voters, and 84% of all Oscar voters are white. This lack of diversity comes at a time when America’s trust in the mass media sits at record lows. Will Hollywood become the next institution to lose our trust? It doesn’t have to be, not if we make the choice now to improve gender equity in film.

Hollywood sets the narrative for our country and the world

Movies create the cultural narratives that quietly control our society. The images and messages we see on-screen inform our understanding of the world, and critically, they tell us how we should show up as individuals. How should we behave? What’s acceptable for me? What’s not?

As it stands, our society’s greatest films hush the voices of 51% of the population, women, and marginalize the 39.5% of the country that is not white.

The social priming starts early: “Hollywood has the ability to deliver dreams to girls and boys around the world about what they can be and what this world can be like,” says Stacy Smith (from the documentary Half the Picture).

For women and girls, film teaches them that their worth is based on their bodies: beauty, weight, and sex appeal. Starting from as young as ages 6 to 8, half of girls and a third of boys believe they should be thinner. Film also teaches women and girls that they are not leaders. In fact, a study of films across 10 countries revealed that men assume the roles of corporate leaders 86% of the time, political leaders 91% of the time, and entertainment leaders 84% of the time.

It’s not only women who suffer from Hollywood’s gender equity. Men suffer, too. Movies reinforce toxic masculinity, the idea that “being a man” means hiding vulnerability, ignoring emotion, and showing aggression. As we’re discovering, mainstream concepts of masculinity play an outsize role in explaining why men account for 79% of all suicides in the US. Our country isn’t alone. In Canada, men are four times more likely to die by suicide than women. And the single biggest killer of British men under the age of 45? Suicide.

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Gender inequity right before our eyes

When the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism set out on “the most comprehensive and intersectional” investigation of gender representation in film, the epidemic of invisibility had already been established. The report, which analyzed the top 1,100 films between 2007 and 2017 and included 48,757 characters, shed new light on just how stark the epidemic was.

Researchers found that female-speaking characters filled 30.6% of all on-screen roles between 2007 and 2017. In other words, there’s a 20-point gap between women speaking roles and women as a percentage of the population.

Looking exclusively at 2017’s 100 top films spanning a total of 4,454 speaking characters, the researchers found that only 19 stories were gender-balanced, a term used to signify that women or girls hold 45% to 54.9% of a film’s speaking roles. The 2017 analysis further revealed that 68.2% of roles went to men while 31.8% of roles went to women. That breakdown isn’t much of an improvement from 2007 when the percentage of women on-screen was “only” 1.9% lower.

One significant boost, however, came from films with female leads and co-leads. A meager 20% of films from 2007 featured a woman as the lead or co-lead. By 2017, that percentage jumped to 34%. And of the 100 top-grossing films of 2019, 43% featured a woman as the lead or co-lead. Still, it leaves room for improvement, which brings us to another aspect of under-representation in film: Intersectionality.

In 2017, black female characters were missing from 43 of the year’s top 100 films. Asian female characters were missing from 65 of the top 100 films, and Latinas were missing from 64. Moreover, 94 films launched without a single female lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender character. Only one of the top 400 films from 2014 to 2017 included a transgender character. In total, 29.3% of characters from 2017’s top 100 movies portrayed underrepresented racial/ethnic communities, and less than 1% of all characters were part of the LGBTQ community.

Even more inequity behind the screen

Hollywood supports gender inequity behind the screen, too, as evident among those who director, produce, and write films.

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First, let’s look at the directors. The top film schools in the U.S. graduate male and female students at almost identical rates. The problem is not supply, it’s the “huge lack of people willing to give female directors opportunities,” according to Oscar-nominated film director Lexi Alexander. She’s right. Women directed 15.1% of the top 200 films from 2018 to 2019 and only 10.6% of the 100 top-grossing films of 2019, which translates to an 8.4-to-1 male-to-female director ratio.

Including all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers from the 100 top-grossing films in 2019, women filled 20% of positions.

Speaking of behind-the-scenes inequity, we mustn’t forget about the gender pay gap for on-screen stars. Actors earn approximately $1.1 million more than what actresses with similar experience earn. And while the gender gap pay narrows between stars with 10 or more years of experience, an “unexplained” $1 million gender gap per movie lingers strong. It’s worth noting that for stars over the age of 50, alas, the gender pay gap rises from $1.1 million to nearly $4 million.

When we magnify our focus on the highest-paid stars, we find an even greater disparity among the wages: in 2017, actors received an average salary of $57.4 million whereas actresses took home $21.8 million—38% of what the men earn. More broadly, the pay gap hurts our economy. We can do better.

The business case for gender equity in film

In addition to sociocultural reasons, studios should also pay attention to the financial upside of gender equity in film. For those unfamiliar with the Bechdel Test, it asks the following three questions about any film:

  • Are there more than two named female characters?
  • Do the two female characters have a conversation at any point?
  • Is that conversation about anything other than a male character?

If the answer is yes to all three questions, the film passes the test. Based on a study of 1,794 movies from 1970 to 2013, the test is tricky—nearly half of the movies failed. The movies that passed enjoyed a higher return on investment than those that didn’t.
Why? Perhaps because making movies more relatable increases their chances of success. Let’s not forget that half of all people who buy movie tickets are female.

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Four ways to eradicate inequity

We don’t have to cope with the inequities in Hollywood—not if we eradicate them. The choice is ours. Will we continue to let our children aspire to the stereotypes they see in film? Or will we take concrete action to move toward gender equity in Hollywood? Here are four ways we can move forward.

1. Support the inclusion rider

“I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider.” Frances McDormand used those words to close her acceptance speech at the 2018 Academy Awards. McDorman’s use of “inclusion rider” refers to the clause that actors and actresses can request added to their contracts. The inclusion rider stipulates that a movie’s cast and crew must represent a specified level of diversity.

2. Consider policy solutions

Public policy can move our world toward gender equity by incentivizing entertainment companies that prioritize inclusion. Since states often extend tax incentives to companies to subsidize their project costs, elected officials can add requirements to the tax incentives that mandate certain levels of gender equity among cast and crew.

3. Focus on off-screen roles

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The positive correlation between the gender of a film’s director and the gender of on-screen characters presents another avenue for progress. Female-directed movies have girls and women in 43% of speaking roles, whereas male-directed movies have girls and women in only 30.9% of speaking roles. The same is true for writing teams. Movies written by women include more girls and women in plot lines than movies written by men, 37.3% versus 29.5% respectively. These data suggest that gender equity behind the scenes helps boost gender equity on-screen.

4. Just add five

To equalize gender representation in movies swiftly, we should “just add five” women to film scripts each year. Based on Dr. Stacy L. Smith’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative, we could reach gender parity in four years if each new film added five extra speaking roles for women. The initiative does not call for filmmakers to remove or change male speaking roles; rather, it advocates for the addition of five women to film scripts.

Let’s use movies to make our world a better place for everyone. Let’s call on Hollywood to step up, prioritize inclusion, and be a catalyst for progress.


Katica Roy is the CEO and founder of Pipeline Equity.

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