Surprise! Women Are Still Under-Represented in Media

Girls may have won a Golden Globe this year, but media representation of women is nowhere close to achieving gender equality. Women (51 percent of the population) are both creators, actors and audiences for media. But on our screens, in our news and behind the scenes they are still woefully underrepresented.

The Women’s Media Center (WMC) has released its second report on the status of women in media, expanding its area of study to provoke “meaningful discussion and increased accountability… [a]nd change.” The report found that, despite some improvements, the gender gap has not abated, and in some industries has even worsened.

Despite recent critical successes of films featuring female leads (The Hunger Games, Brave, Beasts of the Southern Wild) and the fact that women ages 12 and over are 51 percent of moviegoers, the study found that women on the big screen remain under-utilized. In film, female characters are on the rise–one-third of all characters in the top 100 grossing films of 2012 were women.  However, the percentage of female protagonists in film has fallen from 16 percent in 2002 to only 11 percent in 2012.

The lack of women on screen is a decades-old problem, as male characters have outnumbered female characters 2 to 1 since 1950. And behind the camera, the “Celluloid Ceiling” is still a problem. Less than 10 percent of the directors of the top 250 domestic grossing films of 2012 were women, and women make up only 18 percent of the behind-the-scenes film workforce.

In television, the report found that the percentage of female TV characters has fallen, and the characters that make it on-screen are far less likely to be leaders than their male counterparts. According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film’s “Boxed In” report, CW is the only TV network where women can be seen in accurate proportion to their representation in the U.S. population. The authors of “Boxed In” conclude that “female characters are still sidelined, stereotyped, and sexualized in popular entertainment content.”

Things are somewhat looking up for female television news directors; the percentage of women in that arena rose to 30 percent for the first time. But in terms of “ultimate power,” men are still pulling the strings on TV, with women owning less than 7 percent of full-power commercial television stations.

As newsmakers and as news content, women also remain behind men. Despite being equal consumers of news, women are nowhere near close to equal curators or creators of news. The percentage of women in all job categories in the print and broadcastnewsroom has remained stagnant at around 37 percent since 1999. During the 2012 presidential race, male journalists wrote the vast majority (71.68 percent) of the election stories, and primarily quoted other men. Men also dominated women in coverage of issues such as abortion, birth control and women’s rights.

Even dead women can’t catch a break; obituaries are also male-heavy. In December 2012, a Mother Jones article posed the question, ““If a notable woman dies and a major national newspaper doesn’t report it, did it actually happen?” Women accounted for only 23 percent of the deaths reported by top newspapers in 2012, which seems strange when you remember they make up more than half the population.

One area in which the report found that women’s voices are growing is new media. While online-only news sites generally have the same problems as traditional print news (men outnumber women both as writers and as interviewees), there are more women than men using social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and women are also more active users. They are also more likely to speak out when they see mean behavior online. But social media has also been used to silence women: Feminist pop culture media critic Anita Sarkeesian was the target of a vicious online hate campaign when she announced plans for a project discussing female stereotypes in video games. But her story also illustrates the power of social media for good; Sarkeesian ended up raising 25 times her goal for the project.

To address the current bleak portrayal of women in the media, WMC had some tips for news organizations, producers and interview bookers: It recommends being more mindful about how stories are framed, watching out for loaded language and imagery, monitoring reader/viewer comments, responding to critics and getting serious about work-life balance for women and men. This 2013 report points to “a mountain of statistical and anecdotal evidence that women’s voices, with their breadth of expertise, diversity, experiences and humanity, are not being fully represented,” and cannot be ignored if true gender equality in the media is to be achieved.

 Infographics courtesy of the Women’s Media Center