Study: Female Characters Achieve Parity on TV—on Shows Created by Women

Courtesy of Justina Mintz/HBO
HBO's 'Insecure,' created by Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore

San Diego State’s latest Boxed In report finds that women made “modest but pervasive gains” in television last season.

What difference does a show creator’s gender make?

According to the latest Boxed In study from San Diego State’s Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, programs created by at least one woman featured a proportion of major female characters that accurately reflected the 51 percent of the U.S. population. By contrast, shows created solely by men underrepresented women, who accounted for just 38 percent of major roles. Shows created or executive produced by women also were more likely to hire female directors and writers —women comprised 57 percent of scribes on series with at least one female creator, but just 21 percent on male-created programs, while the difference for female helmers was 18 versus 8 percent.

Looking at 4,109 characters and 4,310 behind-the-scenes credits in dramas, comedies and unscripted programs across broadcast, cable and streaming for the 2016-17 season, the researchers found that “while most of the gains are modest, the widespread nature of the increases is striking,” the Center’s Martha Lauzen said in a statement.

The percentage of female-speaking characters rose 3 percent from the prior season, to 42 percent, while women working behind the scenes (as creators, directors, writers, executive producers, producers, editors and cinematographers) increased 2 points, to 28 percent.

But this growth has remained mostly flat for broadcast networks over the past decade, and the share of women working behind the scenes in streaming outnumbered their broadcast counterparts, 32 to 27 percent.

Lauzen said that “2016-17 may be remembered as the year that the streaming services overtook broadcasters on the issue of gender diversity.” 

Overall, only 11 percent of shows featured gender-balanced casts, while 68 percent were male-dominant. Representation for women of color inched upward, with black characters comprising 19 percent of all female roles (up from 16 percent the previous season), Asians 6 percent (up from 4 percent) and Latinas 5 percent (up from 4 percent). And although black and Asian female characters hit historic highs on broadcast (21 percent and 7 percent, respectively), Latinas’ 5 percent share of female speaking parts is the same as it was in 2015-16 and 2010-11.

Behind the scenes, half of the programs studied employed four or fewer women, whereas only 6 percent had just four or fewer working men. The numbers were similarly skewed in the opposite direction, with nearly half of shows (47 percent) staffed by 14 or more men, but only 3 percent of shows employing as many women.