Number of Female Directors Falls Despite Diversity Debate, Says Study

Fifty Shades of Grey Dakota Johnson
Chuck Zlotnick/Focus/Universal/REX/Shutterstock

Despite all the editorials and the speeches and the handwringing, things aren’t getting better for women in Hollywood. They’re getting worse.

Women comprised just 7 percent of all directors working on the 250 highest-grossing domestic releases in 2016, a decline of two percentage points from the level achieved in 2015 and in 1998, according to a new report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. The results come after two years of debate about the lack of opportunities for women and minorities to rise up through the studio system. It’s a conversation that has drawn the likes of Jennifer Lawrence, Natalie Portman, Elizabeth Banks, Jessica Chastain, and other stars, all of whom have publicly decried the lack of pay equity for women and the dearth of female filmmakers.

The report also hits as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) continues to investigate gender discrimination in the movie business.


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“I would say I’m dumbfounded,” said Martha Lauzen, executive director of the center and the study’s author. “It is remarkable that with all of the attention and talk over the last couple of years in the business and the film industry, the numbers actually declined. Clearly the current remedies aren’t working.”

The picture wasn’t much brighter for women in other behind-the-camera professions. Women accounted for 24 percent of all producers working on the top 250 films of 2016, a 2 percent decline from 2015. They made up 17 percent of all editors, a decrease of five percentage points. Some 4 percent of sound designers were women, a drop of a point. And they comprised 5 percent of all cinematographers, a slide of one percentage point from the previous year. Thirty-four percent of the films had no female producers, 79 percent lacked a female editor, 97 percent of films had no female sound designers, and 96 percent didn’t have a female cinematographer.

Women were most likely to find jobs on the sets of documentaries and dramas, and were least likely to be employed on action films and horror films. They did see gains in the composer and supervising sound editor positions, where they made up 3 percent of composers and 8 percent of senior sound editors.

In other roles, women accounted for 13 percent of writers, an increase of two percentage points from 2015, but even with the figure from 1998.

There were fewer high-profile projects that were overseen by women than in past years. In 2015, women like Banks and Sam Taylor-Johnson directed “Pitch Perfect 2” and “Fifty Shades of Grey,” respectively, two of the year’s bigger hits. Last year, there weren’t the same number of projects with blockbuster potential handed over to women. Jodie Foster (“Money Monster”) and Patricia Riggen (“Miracles From Heaven”) were two of the more commercially successful female directors in 2016, while Andrea Arnold (“American Honey”) and Ava DuVernay (“The 13th”) oversaw critical favorites.

One positive note is that 2017 promises to be more diverse, at least in terms of top-grossing pictures. There are several high-profile releases, such as Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman,” Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled,” and Trish Sie’s “Pitch Perfect 3” that should serve as a reminder of women’s talents. At the same time, companies like Lucasfilm and Marvel have said that they are committed to finding female directors for upcoming releases.

The center’s study shows the importance of giving women opportunities to literally call the shots. Films with women directors employ higher percentages of female writers, editors, cinematographers, and composers than films with men behind the camera. Women made up 64 percent of writers on films from female directors, 43 percent of editors, and 16 percent of cinematographers. On films with exclusively male directors, women accounted for 9 percent of writers, 17 percent of editors, and 6 percent of cinematographers.

Lauzen said she’s no longer certain that public shaming is enough. Government action may be required.

“The industry has shown little real will to change in a substantive way,” she said. “For real change to occur we may need some intervention by an outside source.”

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  1. Rainer says:

    The resistance for men to accept these unfair imbalances in employment in the entertainment industry is typical and expected. The defensive and ignorant comments on this board are only substantiating the dire need for more equality for women! The fact that this occurs is actually NOT up for debate– just Google the 1978 EEOC findings of discrimination against women and minorities in Hollywood. Currently, the ACLU is conducting its own investigations as well. What’s especially sad is the fact that so little change has changed since those 1978 findings. Perhaps we have to take a deeper look at the systemic historic culture in Hollywood that has prevented this change: retaliation against whisteblowers, lack of accountability on the part of producers to adhere to diversity issues, hyper-competitive fear-mongering, the good ol’boys club mentality, and the apparent ambiguous hiring skills criteria. This article shows how women in charge of productions hire more fairly. Thus, it’s obviously a top down business model. Find a way to have executive producers/producers adhere to fair business practices in employment- and the rest of the department managers/leaders in the production will follow suit. But let’s not hold our breath on that. Rooney rule?

  2. Jason Szysky says:

    So the government needs to force the public to watch more movies directed by women so their works make it into the top 250? It’s like you can’t teach these people how not to be stupid.

  3. Lisa says:

    That’s because there’s a backlash against women. Just look at who you elected president. Or the sexist comments on here, like we aren’t TRYING hard enough. If we make it through all the blockades of insults, belittling, demeaning or just plain angry comments we’re still just being bumped off at the door.

  4. Jeffrey says:

    “Dumbfounded”… more like just dumb. Have you ever realized that the statistics are this way because there simply aren’t nearly as many women TRYING to be directors!!!… Hilarious… The stats might make sense if you had a 1:1, men:women ratio of candidates. You will see the exact same discrepancies in the number of MEN who are (or aren’t) makeup artists and wardrobe stylists… just simply dumb. If you want more women to be directors then encourage them to want to be. When there are 10,000 highly trained, well qualified men and 200 well qualified women… guess what? The statistics will be skewed and whatever you do, no matter how many conferences you hold, no matter how many statistical studies you do, this won’t change until the underlying candidacy numbers change. So go to film schools, tell the women to pursue being a director instead of the other various career paths the industry presents… Kinda sick of seeing these statistics,which don’t take these things into account. It’s much less a problem of discrimination or sexism as it’s being made to be… And how stupid do you have to be to run study after study, put out misleading stats to the public, and to not understand this. Try working in the industry and you’ll quickly see what I mean!

    • Tayla Kerr says:

      This is so old but to act like the numbers are low because women don’t want to be directors is so blissfully ignorant. Women make up nearly 40% of short film directors, which is where most directors start out in the industry. For female directors to drop from nearly 40% down to 4% shows plain as day that there is realistically a gender bias in Hollywood. This can easily be backed up where it shows that female directors have closer numbers between gender distribution, where men have drastically lower gender equality on their movie sets.

    • rider2016 says:

      Jeffrey, you are clueless, there are vast number of women who aren’t just “trying” to be directors, they ARE directors. All of these comments that suggest finding another job is evading the exact point is that it is illegal to discriminate and people of both genders should have an equal opportunity to be hired.

      What you are simplistically stating is wrong because it is ignoring a systematic blocking of women getting employment. This is an employment issue not a popularity contest for nerdboy wunderkinds. Face it, this issue is that men feel emasculated and castrated when women invade their traditional areas of power and they don’t want to give it up. Guess what, it’s not the 1800’s anymore when you can lock 52% of the population out from opportunity, there has to be some responsibility.

      • Jeffrey says:

        Correct. There are also hundreds more MEN who are as compared with women… Women do have an equal opportunity to be hired. There needs to be MORE WOMEN candidates who are on the same tier as the men who are up for the same positions. What you’re saying is baseless and non-sense in this study, in this industry. While, yes, you probably are generally correct. It’s because there ARE A TON MORE MEN than women in line… The statistical studies are flawed as described in my previous statement. It’s like going to a restaurant with a line out the door and there are 50 women and 500 men in line. Who is going to get served more? Men or women? The statistical studies are flawed. Period.

  5. LOL says:

    Hollywood produces crap anyway. Women are too good for it. They got class and smarts.

  6. Nanny Mo says:

    The arts must be about talent. These types of gender-centric articles are only taking us backward. We just had the first female director get an Oscar because she earned it, not because it was given in pity. If we force people to hire artist not for talent but due to race or gender, we are a racist, genders society. I want NO PART of that. These types of stories make me question your talents.

  7. rider2016 says:

    How about a little compassion, Leon? You are either a vapid narcissist or completely inane…who cares? Female directors who can’t get jobs care, who can’t get health insurance or pay their mortgages because there is a bias to hire men. Whatever you do for a living, I am sure you would care if you were excluded from getting a job because you are a man, Leon.

    The very fact that you don’t care who is behind the camera proves the point of the article, that it shouldn’t matter whether or not the director is male or female but both genders should have an equal shot at employment. It’s something that has be addressed in most every other industry, except the Presidency..

  8. Atilla Thehun says:

    Are we after whomever can do the best job or balancing the number of ovaries vs number of testicles calling the shots. Seriously! If a 3-foot-three transgender with 5 nipples can best interpret a script. Hire hir.

  9. Leon says:

    I swear these text boxes purposley change the text to make it incorrect.

  10. Leon says:

    Who CARES! seriously this PC trend is killing movies. I dont care who is behind the camera. I dont care who is infront. I care that the content is good you PC toting ot of touch idiots. Just make good movies. Thats all. I dont care about how many women or men or black or asain people are dircting. It doesnt matter. I have more important things to worry about and this is not oine of them. This is ehy hilary lost cause hollywood keeps trying to shove thier ideals down a,erica throat. Well we are tired of choking on your BS. Losers.

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