Across TV Platforms, Women Remain Underrepresented On- and Off-Screen

Research released this week reveals that women still have very far to go in the fight for equality on the small screen.

Boxed In: Women On Screen and Behind the Scenes in Television is a content analysis examining the roles women occupy on- and off-screen in television production that’s been conducted annually for 19 yearsThe 2015-2016 edition, authored by Dr. Martha M. Lauzen at the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, analyzed 3,504 characters and 3,593 behind-the-scenes credits from drama, comedy and reality shows aired from September 2015 to May 2016 on broadcast networks, basic and pay cable channels and streaming services like ABC, CBS, CW, NBC, Fox, A & E, Discovery, Freeform, FX, HGTV, History, TBS, TNT, USA, HBO, Showtime, Amazon, Hulu and Netflix.

The results were unsurprising to those who have been following the media industry’s failed attempts to diversify—and they reinforce that a rise in programming deemed “feminist” or depicting women correlates with progress for the television sector. “These findings are at odds with the popular perception that women have taken over the world of television,” Lauzen noted in a press release, “or, at the very least, achieved parity.” Instead, the study found that in the world of television, men remain the majority.

Seventy-nine percent of television shows studied featured casts of characters where men outnumbered women. Casts where woman comprised the majority made up a meager 16 percent of the programs reviewed; casts featuring equal numbers of men and women appeared in only 5. But women don’t just appear less frequently than men—they also hold fewer prominent roles. Thirty-nine percent of the speaking characters studied were women, a percentage which indicates a marginal decrease from previous years. Women—when they’re actually on-screen—also continue to be portrayed in line with gender stereotypes: Female characters were more likely to be concerned with romantic relationships and caregiving and less likely to be shown in work environments or depicted as possessing work-related goals.

However, the report did note increases in racial and ethnic diversity in broadcast programming. The representation of African American women on-screen has hit a record high, and there were also increases in the number of Latina and Asian American female characters, but there’s still room for dramatic improvement. African American women—after a two percent increase from the prior year—still encompass only 17 percent of female broadcast characters. White women comprised 71, and on streaming and cable platforms, about 77 percent.

It isn’t only through on-screen representation that women can make progress in the world of television. The results of the study examining gender off-screen, however, were dismal: Women constituted only 26 percent of the creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, and directors of photography working across all of the television shows analyzed. The Boxed In results confirmed how influential women can be once they get a seat at the table: Among the shows where at least one woman creator is employed, 45 percent of all speaking roles were held by women and 51 percent of all members of the writing staff were women. When a show’s creators are only men, those numbers drop.

“Creators and executive producers act as our cultural architects,” Lauzen said. “Constructing a more inclusive televisual world on screen begins with employing a more inclusive behind-the-scenes community.”

Gender equality in television can lead the way to breaking barriers and crafting more diverse content. Television executives and producers must work to not only depict and discuss feminist concepts on screen, but to implement these ideals at every level of the industry.




Melissa Scholke is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied English Literature and Communications Studies. When she’s not writing and discussing important feminist issues, she spends time reading and indulging her indie music obsession.