Women in Television: We’ve Come a Long Way

Woman operates a television camera.

As a result of the social distancing, many people have turned to TV for entertainment and escape. The past month, in which shows of all kind have seen spikes in viewership, also happens to be Women’s History Month. During this time, TV provides an opportunity to pay homage to women’s contributions. After all, television serves to elevate and celebrate the stories of strong women.

Last week, we wrote about our favorite women-centered TV shows. Today, to close out Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating the women whose labor and efforts went into creating the entertainment experiences we all enjoy. While you’re stuck at home, think about choosing shows with a female director or showrunner. In doing this, you support the multiple generations of powerful women have challenged norms, shattered stereotypes, and broken through ceilings in entertainment. In honor of Women’s History Month, let’s take a look at female representation in television.

Women in TV, by the Numbers

On-screen

When it comes to on-screen representation on television, women have a lot to celebrate. Last year, women comprised 45% of major characters in comedies, dramas and reality programs across all TV platforms – an historic high, and a notable bump of 5% from the previous year. Given that females over the age of 16 make up about 58% of the U.S. population, there is still work to be done to reach full parity, but the current trajectory is very optimistic. And the news for children’s TV shows – which include animated characters – is even better. According to research by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, children’s television reached parity in 2018, when an analysis of the 50 most popular kids’ shows found female characters in 52% of lead roles.

The Director’s Chair

Women are making strides behind the camera, as well. In fact, women directed 31% of all TV episodes that aired in the 2018-2019 season, jumping up 6% from the year before, and more than doubling from only 14% five years ago. Women of color – while making forward progress – are still underrepresented, however; the percentage of episodes directed by this demographic increased from 6% to 8% over the past year which, while a big jump from only 2% five years ago, still lags behind white women (at 22%). From a network perspective, Disney and HBO are leading the way in gender parity, with about 40% and 37% of their episodes, respectively, directed by women.

Other Key Production Roles

When it comes to other key production roles, including executive producers and creators, women are making more incremental progress. Last year, for instance, 25% of all TV shows were created by women, up only 3% from five years ago, while 30% of shows had female executive producers. Why is it so important to fill these decision-making roles with women? A recent study from the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film found that TV programs with at least one female creator or executive producer resulted in significantly higher numbers of women in other key roles – both on-screen and behind the scenes. For example, “on programs with at least one woman creator, women accounted for 65% of writers versus 19% on programs with no women creators.”

Writers’ Room

While 39% of television writers were women during the last TV season – a jump of about 7% in five years – many of them still find themselves in token positions inside writers’ rooms. A study from Behind the Scenes (BTS) found that 34% of female or non-binary television writers were the only non-males on the staff, a number that jumped to 56% for staff writers. Being the only female or non-binary person in the room puts extra pressure on them to be the “voice” of their gender, and can also expose them to harassment. The same study found that 58% of diverse writers (women and other minorities) experiences pushback or microaggressions “when pitching non-stereotypical diverse characters or storylines.”

Winds of Change

The past five years have proven to be pivotal for the advancement of women across American life – and the entertainment industry played an important role. From Time magazine’s dedicating 2017’s person of the year to “The Silence Breakers” in the wake of the #MeToo movement – a movement accelerated by the brave testimony of female actors – to the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup soccer game becoming the most-streamed final in tournament history on Fox Sports, women have shattered glass ceilings and shown themselves to be a powerful market force. According to Nielsen, women will control 75% of the discretionary spend by 2028; the entire industry – and world – is paying attention.

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