The XX Factor

Women Are Scarce in Journalism, Film, and TV, and the Numbers Aren’t Budging

Melissa Harris-Perry is single-handedly making Sunday talk shows less white and male.

Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for GLAAD

On Wednesday, the Women’s Media Center released its annual Status of Women in U.S. Media Report, which tracks how many women are being hired, seen, and heard in American journalism and entertainment. They found that women are holding steady at not being hired, seen, or heard very much. While some sectors of the media—like entertainment television shows and radio newsrooms—have significantly bolstered their ranks of women in the past few years (though not to the point of parity), most metrics show that the representation of women in the media has barely budged across the past five to 15 years.

According to the report, women made up 36.3 percent of newsroom staffers at American newspapers in 2013, a figure that’s decreased slightly since the American Society of Newspaper Editors Newsroom Census started its gender count in 1999. They made up just 27 percent of opinion columnists in the major U.S. newspapers and content syndication services last year. Male sources are quoted three times as frequently as female ones in front-page stories in the New York Times. In the 100 most profitable films released in 2012, only 28.4 percent of speaking characters were women, the lowest percentage registered in the five years that the USC Annenberg School has been counting them up. (Women were also disproportionately portrayed as children and teenagers compared to men.) And behind the scenes, women’s representation hasn’t increased in 15 years—they made up 16 percent of writers, directors, editors, and producers in the 250 top domestic-grossing films in 2013, compared to 17 percent in 1998. From 1998 to 2013, the percentage of female film writers dropped from 13 percent to 10; the percentage of female directors dropped from 9 to 6.

When we talk about gender equality, we sometimes believe that women will naturally march toward progress until, one day, they finally reach equity. We look back on the state of women 50 years ago and see that they’ve made incredible strides in the workforce and in media representation since then, and assume that the trend will hold. But when we dial the clock back a little closer to the present—say, to 15 years ago—it’s clear that progress has stalled, and that simply waiting for the world to change isn’t a viable solution to the problem.

The Women’s Media Center’s figures are dismal across the board. But look closer at the institutions that make up the figures, and you’ll find a few specific leaders in the field who are working hard to change the numbers. In 2013, 50 percent of the narrative films in competition at the Sundance Film Festival were directed by women, up from 22 percent in 2002. Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight won the directing award for narrative drama that year. (Sundance launched its Women Filmmakers Initiative, which funds research into the underrepresentation of women in independent film and created fellowships for female directors and producers, in 2012.) White men, who make up 34 percent of the U.S. population, are vastly overrepresented on Sunday news talk shows: Last year, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CBS’s shows combined featured 64 percent white male guests, while CNN featured 54 percent white male guests. But one show—Melissa Harris-Perry’s—brought MSNBC’s numbers in line with the population, featuring 34 percent white male guests. (Harris-Perry’s MSNBC colleague Chris Hayes has also helped to dilute the white male commentator pool by instituting a quota system for his bookers, requiring that at least two of his four show guests be female.) And in the world of sports journalism—which is 90 percent male and 90 percent white—two outlets, ESPN and The Sporting News, are solely responsible for increasing the ranks of minority and female sports journalists. Of the 35 female columnists counted in the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports’ 2012 report card, 23 worked for ESPN. That suggests that while we’re waiting on society at large to shift, real change can come from the top.