02/28/2014 12:22 am ET Updated Apr 30, 2014

The Academy's Celluloid Ceiling

The red carpet for the Academy Awards rolls out on Sunday, when hopefuls, hacks, and superstars alike chase the most coveted prize in show business. If you look only at the categories for acting, women come in for an equal share of the Oscars, and are often held in higher esteem than the men. But peeking behind the velvet curtains, the scene shifts...

There's been a lot of talk in the last few years that if you're over 40 and female, you might as well be dead as far as the movies are concerned. That doesn't hold true for this year's crop of Best Actress nominees. Judi Dench (Philomena) is 79, Meryl Streep (August: Osage County) is 64, and Sandra Bullock (Gravity) is 49. The two youngters are Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) at 44, and Amy Adams (American Hustler), who's 39.

But according to Melissa Silverstein, founder of the Women and Hollywood blog on Indiewire, the complaint that there aren't enough parts for older women is off the mark. The problem is that there are not enough parts for women, period -- young, old, or in-between. "Women make up less than 30 percent of the speaking roles in movies, and they are less than 20 percent of protagonists," she points out.

Silverstein is right, and there's a lot more to what she's saying. According to Dr. Martha Lauzen's Celluloid Ceiling Report on the top 250 domestic movies of the year that comes out every January, the figures for women in all areas of the film industry are miserable. Females make up 6 percent of directors, 2012-06-12-yourvoicesmallest2.JPG 15 percent of writers, and a paltry 3 percent of cinematographers. What's more, the situation hasn't improved in the 16 years the report has been produced. In fact, it's gotten slightly worse. Taking into account that these numbers are for the top 250 movies, imagine how low they are for the top 25 or 50.

The lack of meaningful roles for women has given rise to some litmus tests that are interesting. The Bechdel Test, created by writer Alison Bechdel in 1985, judges a movie on its inclusion of women, using three criteria: 1) does the film have at least two women 2) who speak to each other 3) about something other than a man?

But drawing conclusions from the Bechdel Test can be frustrating, Silverstein told Aljazeera. "Gravity fails that test. It has science, engineering -- she's an astronaut. A girl can dream about being an astronaut. These are the kinds of things I'd like to get the discussion around."

Recognizing the limitations of Bechdel's analysis, feminist writer Jennifer Pozner has come up with some additional criteria: 1) Are there at least two main female characters? 2) Are they not simply the love interests, wives or mothers of the male lead(s)? 3) Are they not prostitutes, maids or rape or domestic-violence victims? 4) Do they have goals involving something other than men, love, sex or child-rearing? 5) If the show is animated, are the female characters fully clothed?

Others in the business, including Geena Davis and Whoopi Goldberg, have suggested that all roles be evaluated as to whether they could be filled by a female as well as a male. As for non-acting jobs in the film industry, the consensus seems to be that as long as the top echelons of decision making are dominated by men, they're going to -- well -- think like men.

So enjoy the show -- just remember Oscar is a man in more ways than one.

Listen to the 30-minute radio interview with Melissa Silverstein here: