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Investigating Hollywood's 'Celluloid Ceiling'

02/02/2015 12:45 pm ET | Updated Apr 04, 2015

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In the unlikely event that Hollywood were to bestow an award for "Best Researcher on Sexism in the Industry," Martha Lauzen would take top prize. For 17 years, the San Diego State University professor has published an annual study called "The Celluloid Ceiling," which tracks the behind-the-scenes employment of women on the top 250 films released each year. The results aren't pretty. Dr. Lauzen's 2014 research indicates that only 17 percent of powerful roles (think director, writer, producer) are held by females -- a figure that hasn't changed since her research began in 1998.

As part of our ongoing Women in Hollywood project, we asked Dr. Lauzen about the lack of opportunities for women, how to fix the problem and whether she ever gets depressed by her own data (spoiler alert: No.)

The Story Exchange: You're a recognized expert on the topic of women in film and television. What drew you to the field?

I was curious about the disconnect between stories in the popular press reporting that the numbers of women working on screen and behind the scenes in television and film were improving and the actual number of credits and portrayals I was seeing on screen. The hype didn't seem to match the reality.

The Story Exchange: In your years of researching the issue, what has surprised you the most?

When Kathryn Bigelow won her well-deserved Oscars for The Hurt Locker, industry pundits and reporters started talking about "a Bigelow effect." It was the notion that her success would immediately and positively impact the careers of other women who direct. While she may be an important role model for some aspiring women filmmakers, progress is rarely that quick or straightforward, and industry biases are deeply held.

I had a similar reaction back in the early 2000s when women headed some of the most powerful unions in Hollywood. In about 2002-03 Martha Coolidge became president of the Directors Guild of America. Victoria Riskin assumed the presidency of the Writers Guild of America, and Melissa Gilbert served as president of the Screen Actors Guild. At the time, speculation was rampant that these women would revolutionize Hollywood. These were single women sitting atop huge organizations. Why would we expect these women (some of them in a year's time) to be able to change decades of entrenched employment practices and values? We need to have realistic expectations about change.

The Story Exchange: When we see prominent female directors (this year, Ava DuVernay and Angelina Jolie) and more box-office hits for "female-centric" movies (like Bridesmaids, Hunger Games, and Frozen) -- can we be optimistic?

The problem with anecdotal cases is that they do not represent the reality for most women working in film and television. The naming of a few high-profile films or individuals can dramatically skew our perceptions of women's progress. For example, according to the latest celluloid ceiling study, women comprised just seven percent of directors working on the top 250 films of 2014. In 1998, women accounted for nine percent of directors. The percentage of women who direct has actually declined over the last 17 years. According to my latest study of on-screen roles, titled "It's a Man's (Celluloid) World," females accounted for just 15 percent of protagonists in the top 100 films of 2013. This represents a decline of 1 percentage point from 2002.

The Story Exchange: In a nutshell, can you explain the lack of female representation in TV and film?

The situation for women in television and film is not identical. Television has traditionally been more welcoming of women than film. For example, women comprise 42 percent of all speaking characters in prime-time television but just 30 percent of all speaking characters in film. Behind-the-scenes, women account for 27 percent of individuals in powerful roles such as creators and writers in television but just 17 percent of individuals in similar roles in film.

A clear and consistent finding in both television and film is that when there is at least one woman working in a position of power behind the scenes, we see more female characters on screen. For example, I conducted a study of the top 500 grossing films of 2013 and found that in films with at least one woman director, females comprised 42 percent of all characters. In films with exclusively male directors, females accounted for 32 percent of all characters. Further, films with women directors also tend to employ greater numbers of women writers, editors, and cinematographers. The dearth of women working behind the scenes is related to the under-representation of females on screen.

The Story Exchange: There are probably no easy solutions, but how or when do you think we'll see more women on the screen and behind the scenes?

Perhaps the most basic reason why we haven't seen any progress in the last 17 years is that many people in positions of power, such as studio heads and union leaders, don't consider the lack of gender diversity to be problematic. The current programs intended to increase diversity, including the various mentoring and shadowing initiatives for directors, while well intentioned, are not large enough to move the numbers. This is an industry-wide problem in need of an industry-wide solution. This is a reality that the powers-that-be have yet to acknowledge.

The Story Exchange: Do you ever get depressed by your own research?

I do not. The television and film industries are very large and do not change course overnight. It can take decades and even lifetimes for significant change to occur.

In coming months, The Story Exchange will be exploring Hollywood's gender gap, interviewing directors, producers, actors, writers and academics who are following the issue and advocating for change. Interested in being a part of our series? Drop us a line at info@thestoryexchange.org.