Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, found that among the top 250 domestic grossing films, women filled just 19 percent of the following pivotal movie-making jobs: director, writer, executive producer, editor and cinematographer.
While that's two percentage points higher than last year, it can't be called good news yet. That's because the figure, which is actually the same as the number seen in 2001, has fluctuated up and down by a couple percentage points for nearly 20 years. The same goes for the percentage of films directed by a woman, which is up slightly this year but exactly the same as the percentage of films directed by women back in 1998.
"It’s not really a surprise to me because I’ve been doing this for 20 years," Lauzen said. "The percentage of women in these various roles will increase a couple of percentage points one year and decrease a couple the next--we tend to stay in a pretty narrow range. But it is a surprise that this is where we are in 2016, especially given all the public dialogue about this issue recently."
At Sunday night's Golden Globes, no women were nominated for best director, and only one woman was nominated for best screenplay (Emma Donoghue, Room). In the four years prior, only one woman was nominated for best screenplay and only two were nominated for best director.
Lauzen expanded the study this year to also analyze the number of women working behind the scenes on the top 100 and the top 500 grossing films, too. Those breakdowns were telling. In traditionally male roles -- directors, cinematographers, executive producers -- women were represented in far greater numbers when the sample size was larger, and more independent films are included. (She excludes foreign-language films to get a better reflection of U.S. jobs.)
For instance, just three percent of the top 100 films have female cinematographers. But among the top 500, 10 percent are women.
The same pattern doesn't hold up in roles that have more traditionally been open to women, such as editing. Indeed, "for many years, editing was thought of as being like sewing," Lauzen said. "Small hands were thought to be good at cutting celluloid." While 20 percent of editors on the top 100 films are female, it's roughly the same in larger samples -- 22 percent of editors are women among the top 250 films, and 21 percent are female among the top 500.
That suggests, Lauzen said, that the more traditionally male roles are more susceptible to biases in the mainstream film industry that tend to produce the highest-grossing films. "People have this image in their head of 'that’s what a director looks like,' " she said.
Lauzen also included a discussion in the report for the first time this year about how having a woman in the director role leads to more women filling other jobs. On films that had at least one female director (some films have co-directors), 53 percent of the writers on those films were women, too, compared with 10 percent of writers on films that only had men in the director's chair. Similarly, on female-led films, 32 percent of editors were female, compared with 19 percent of editors on male-led films.
"People feel most comfortable working with those who look like they do," she said, calling the director's chair a "gateway position" that influences who else gets hired. "That's the unconscious bias that people are talking about so much these days."
What Lauzen found most unsettling in the report, meanwhile, is that fully one-third of the top 250 grossing movies employed either no women or just one woman on these teams of key behind-the-scene roles. While that's a smaller percentage than last year, Lauzen said it's still shocking to think that happens when one-third to over half of the student body at top film schools around the country are women.
Still, she finds it encouraging that there's so much of a spotlight on the issue now. "When I started doing this research nearly 20 years ago, the discussion of women in the business was confined to a couple of special issues in the entertainment trade magazines each year -- otherwise you did not hear people talking about it," she said. "Now, you'd have to be living under a rock to have not heard about it. That has yet to translate into a change in the numbers, but the public dialogue has evolved and become a part of our cultural consciousness."