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Want to See More Women on TV? Hire Women Offscreen

Broadly spoke to the study author who found that there's been "no meaningful progress over the last decade" to hire women creators, directors, and producers in television.

Linda Yang

Linda Yang

Photo courtesy of HBO

Every year, San Diego State University's Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film produces an annual study tracking women's representation in prime-time TV. This year's report revealed that on screen, there have been small, gradual increases in the number of major women's roles. But things are more bleak behind the scenes, with researchers concluding that work for women as creators, directors, and producers has "stalled, with no meaningful progress over the last decade."

To determine gender disparities in the 2016-2017 TV season, the study "consider[ed] one randomly selected episode of every series appearing on the broadcast networks, basic cable channels, premium cable channels, and streaming services." From September 2016 to May 2017, researchers looked at 4,109 characters (included in the study if they spoke at least one line in the episode) and 4,310 behind-the-scenes credits.

Study author Dr. Martha Lauzen told Broadly that, "Women made modest but unusually widespread gains on screen and behind the scenes on television in 2016-17."

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While the study found that the majority of programs (68 percent) featured casts with more male characters than female ones, the data did show that there's been an uptick in women's representation since last year, with more women in major TV roles. Women made up just 38 percent of major parts in the 2015-2016 season in comparison to 42 percent in the 2016-2017 season.

Not only are the number of women's roles increasing, but diversity in those roles is faring better, too—if only incrementally. This year's study found that across all platforms, black characters made up 19 percent of female characters, marking a three percent increase from the year before. Asian characters represented 6 percent of female roles this year, a two percent increase from the year before. In an historic high, black and Asian women represented 21 percent and 7 percent of female roles on broadcast network programs, respectively.

Census information about the racial make up on the United States says that 13.3 percent of the population is black and 5.7 percent is Asian, meaning that onscreen representation of black and Asian characters is at least slowly coming closer to resembling reality in recent years. Howeber, comparing onscreen representation data to census information is less encouraging when it comes to Hispanic or Latino populations, which make up 17.8 percent of the US population but only 5 percent of female roles in television. "Latinas remain dramatically underrepresented in comparison to their numbers in the US population," Lauzen said.

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Logically, the study presents a natural solution to women's underrepresentation: hiring more women. Lauzen and her team concluded that when a show has at least one female creator, women make up at least 51 percent of major characters. Conversely, shows with all-men creators yield only 38 percent of major speaking roles for women.

Hopefully, we'll make more progress hiring women behind-the-scenes in the next decade than we did in the last. Researchers found that there has been "no meaningful progress over the last decade" in this regard, with women making up only 27 percent of all creators, directors, writers, producers, editors, and directors of photography, marking no change from the year before, and only a one percent increase since the 2006-2007 season.

"Increasing the numbers of women in these gatekeeping roles would likely increase the percentages of women working in other key behind-the-scenes roles and the percentage of female characters on screen," Lauzen said.