Glass Ceiling Is Even Worse for Women on Big Screen

By Michael Nam


Walt Hickey of FiveThirtyEight, the outlet with a heavy emphasis on statistical analysis, took a quick look at how Hollywood portrays women on the silver screen, and from that glimpse it looks as though film fantasy is even worse than actual reality.

Even in fields with a large gender gap in real life, what we see on-screen is even worse. Yeah, medicine and law skew male, but not as much as in the movies. In 2005, 30 percent of lawyers were women, but in this data set, only 11 percent of lawyers or attorneys were played by women. And according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, about 32 percent of doctors were women in September 2014, but on screen, only 10 percent were women.

The numbers are fascinating (although Hickey does point out that much of what he culled only dates back to 1995, as the OpusData database he used has more reliable data from that year forward). Between 1995 and 2015, women portrayed 89 percent of all nurses and only 3 percent of all soldiers. Clearly, traditional-gendered roles around nurturing, caregiving or service-industry skills were overbalanced for women workers compared to real-life data.

Still worse, Hickey points out, is the information found in a deeper study of popular family movies from the University of Southern California. According to the report: “Only three female characters are at the pinnacle of the political sphere in family films: two U.S. Representatives (that did not speak but are only referred to by name) and one German Chancellor. All three of these characters are inconsequential to the stories they populate. Thus, not one speaking character plays a powerful American female political figure across 5,839 speaking characters in 129 family films.

“Men, however, hold over 45 different prestigious U.S. political positions (i.e., President, Vice President, Chief of Staff, Advisors, Senators, Representatives, Mayors, Governors) in G, PG and PG-13 movies.”

Hickey points out the insidiousness of such a skewed view of gender roles in our entertainment, especially how it affects workplaces with existing gender-disparity problems.

“If every engineer on screen is a dude, that sends a message about who can be an engineer,” he wrote.

It’s already clear that there are more men named John who are Fortune 500 CEOs than there are women CEOs on the list. With the extreme imbalance of roles between men and women in Hollywood, this may indicate just how much fiction reinforces gender norms in our society.

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