Female Actors Reach “Historic Highs” On Broadcast & Streaming Shows, But Women Lag In Behind-The-Scenes Jobs, Study Finds

More than half (52.2%) of the major characters on streaming programs shown during the 2020-21 season were played by women – an increase of seven percentage points from a year ago and a “recent historic high,” according to the latest “Boxed In” report from Dr. Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State.

The report also found that percentages of females in all speaking roles (45%) for both broadcast networks and streaming services have reached “recent historic highs,” with the broadcast networks up from the previous high of 44% in the previous year, and streaming shows dead even with the percentage they achieved in 2018-19.

According to the report, the percentage of female producers (43%) and directors of photography (6.8%) working on broadcast network programs also hit “recent historic highs” during the 2020-21 season.

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Even so, the report found that women accounted for only 22% of creators, 19% of directors, and 15% of editors on broadcast network programs, but noted that those percentages were considerably higher for streaming shows: 30% of creators, 31% of directors, and 24% of editors.

See the full report here.

“Streamers get a lot of credit for offering more progressive programming, and that reputation is, in part, well deserved,” Lauzen said. “Their programs feature more female characters in major roles and have much higher percentages of women working as creators, directors, and editors than broadcast programs. However, females accounted for 45% of all speaking characters on original programs appearing on streaming services and 45% on broadcast networks. It’s frustrating to see that women’s representation on broadcast network programs has moved only a few percentage points over the last 15 years.”

The report poses the questions: “Do streaming programs feature substantially higher percentages of female characters than those on the broadcast networks, and do they employ more women behind the scenes?” The answers, it says, “are more complex than one might expect,” with streaming doing better in some areas, and the broadcast networks doing better in others.

The report found that broadcast network programs featured slightly higher percentages of Black female (23%) and Latina (8%) characters in speaking roles than programs on streaming services (20% and 6%, respectively), but that streaming programs had a slightly higher percentage of Asian female characters than those on the broadcast networks (11% vs. 9%).

This year’s survey found, as have past reports, that programs with at least one woman creator created more opportunities for women in front of and behind the cameras than those shows that had no female creators. It found that they not only featured more female characters in speaking and major roles than programs with exclusively male creators, but that they employed higher percentages of women as directors, writers, and editors as well. For example, on programs with at least one woman creator, females comprised 53% of major characters. On programs with exclusively male creators, females accounted for 46% of major characters. The study defines “major characters” as those who appear in more than one scene and are instrumental to the narrative of the story.

“Increasing the numbers of women creators is important because they fulfill a gatekeeping role for female characters on screen and women working behind the scenes,” Lauzen said. “Women accounted for 52% of writers on shows with women creators, but just 23% on shows with exclusively male creators.”

“Boxed In” summarizes the findings of a content analysis of characters and behind-the-scenes credits on dramas, comedies, and reality programs. In 2020-21, the study tracked 3,429 characters and 4,434 behind-the-scenes credits. Over the last 24 years – from 1997-98 to 2020-21 – the study has monitored over 50,000 characters and more than 63,000 behind-the-scenes credits.

Men outnumbered women by two-to-one in all the behind the scenes streaming jobs examined in the survey. Women made up 32.9% of all creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and directors of photography working on streaming programs in 2020-21 – a decrease of two percentage points from the prior year. Men accounted for 67.1% of those working in these behind-the-scenes roles.

Overall, broadcast and streaming programs employed “relatively low numbers of women” in these key behind-the-scenes roles, according to the report. Only 12% of broadcast programs employed 11 or more women in the jobs considered, while 78% employed 11 or more men. And just 15% of streaming programs employed 11 or more women in these jobs, compared to 65% of the shows that employed 11 or more men.

With regards to race and ethnicity, on streaming shows, 60.6% of all females in speaking roles were white (a decline of four percentage points from 2019-20); 20.3% were Black (an increase of two percentage points; 5.7% were Latina (down three percentage points); 11.3% were Asian (up three percentage points; less than 1% (0.6%) were Middle Eastern and North African (MENA); less than 1% (0.3%) were Native American; less than 1% (0.6%) were multiracial/multiethnic, and less than 1% (0.7%) were of some other race or ethnicity.

Of the major characters portrayed by females on streaming shows, 59.3% were white; 21.8% were Black; 5.4% were Latina; 10.9% were Asian; 1% were MENA; less than 1% (0.6%) were Native American, and 1% were multiracial/multiethnic.

On broadcast shows, 56.9% of all female characters in speaking roles during 2020-21 were white (down three percentage points from 2019-20); 23.2% were Black (down three percentage points); 7.5% were Latina (up 2.5 percentage points); 9.3% were Asian (up one percentage point); 1.9% were multiracial/multiethnic; less than 1% (0.8%) were MENA, and less than 1% (0.5%) were of some other race or ethnicity.

On broadcast shows, 58.2% of major female characters were white (down five percentage points from 2019-20); 22.4% were Black (down two percentage points); 8.3% were Latina (up two percentage points); 8.3% were Asian (up one percentage point; 2% were multiracial/multiethnic; less than 1% (0.4%) were MENA, and less than 1% (0.4%) were some other race/ethnicity.

With regards to age, the report found that on the broadcast networks “Overall, female characters continue to be younger than their male counterparts. The majority of female characters were in their 20s and 30s (58%), whereas the majority of males were in their 30s and 40s (61%). Female characters experienced a precipitous decline in numbers from their 30s (39%) to their 40s (17%). The percentage of male characters also declined, but it was not as dramatic (from 34% to 27%).”

The report also found that 46% of male characters were 40 and older, but that only 30% of female characters were 40 and older, while more male characters than female characters were 60 or older (7% vs. 4%).

The findings for streaming shows were similar: overall, 40% of male characters in speaking roles were 40 or older, while only 30% of female characters were 40 or older. Streaming programs also featured more than twice as many male characters as female characters who were 60 or older (7% vs. 3%).

The report also found that “females accounted for 44.6% of all speaking characters on broadcast network and streaming programs. Males comprised 55% and non-binary and transgender characters made up 0.4% of speaking characters.”

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