No-Woman’s-Land: Study Finds Few Cracks in Hollywood's Glass Ceiling

From directing to writing to special effects, not enough women work behind the scenes in top-grossing films.

Hollywood's Glass Ceiling for Women in Film

(Photo: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images)

Solvej Schou writes regularly for TakePart, and has also contributed to the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, BBC.com, and Entertainment Weekly.

On the surface, Sunday night’s boozy, glitzy Golden Globe Awards was brimming with brave women who have brought audiences unforgettable moments in film, from saucy best supporting actress winner Jennifer Lawrence to stylish nominee Lupita Nyong’o of 12 Years a Slave.

But in the best directing and screenwriting categories, there were no women nominees—a situation that's all too common.

The glass ceiling in Hollywood is not only still in effect but as tough and annoyingly impenetrable as a wall of bricks, according to an annual study—conducted by San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film and released Tuesday—on women and employment in top-grossing American movies.

Only 16 percent of people working in key behind-the-scenes roles in top-grossing domestic 2013 movies were women, down from 2012 and 1998, the year the study first took shape. In 2013, women accounted for only 6 percent of U.S. directors. Shocked? Pissed off? You should be.

“I think it is stunning to see that the numbers for women working in those key roles is slightly down from 16 years ago,” says Martha M. Lauzen, the author of the study and the executive director of the center. “We seem to be in this state of gender inertia, where the numbers of women working behind the scenes are not moving.”

Altogether, the study’s stats are staggering. Women accounted for only 10 percent of writers working on these top films, down from 2012 and 1998. A measly 2 percent of special effects supervisors were women, and 97 percent of top 2013 movies had no female sound designers. The Bechdel test—popularized in 1985 by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, it requires that a movie (a) feature at least two women characters who (b) talk to each other (c) about something other than a man—still applies.

So what’s going on? While barriers to women entering television and the indie film world have lowered, says Lauzen, the studio system has stayed very much the same. The “Bigelow effect”—the dreamy idea of a halo effect after Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win a best director Oscar, in 2009, for her war movie The Hurt Locker—has never materialized.

“Every time a filmmaker who happens to be a woman enjoys success, it’s perceived as a fluke in Hollywood circles, not part of a trend, and that has to change,” says Lauzen.

There are other reasons for this long-lasting gender inertia. First, filmmaking is a business based on tight relationships, and people feel more comfortable with people who look like them (i.e., men), says Lauzen.

Second, the call for change has come more from bloggers, writers, and individual directors than from Hollywood’s elite. For true change to happen, those at the top—the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Directors Guild and the Writers Guild, the major film studios—need to address gender inequality together.

“Most of the powers that be, the people that could really create change, have remained incredibly silent on this issue,” says Lauzen. “Something has to be labeled a problem in order for people to feel they need to do something about it.”

For filmmakers such as Jackie Weissman, director of the music documentary Rock N Roll Mamas, which is making the festival rounds, the study’s stats aren’t a surprise.

“I think the only way these stats will change is if there are more women in power in Hollywood who will hire and mentor other women,” she says. “If women don't help other women get their breaks, no one else will."

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