Menus Subscribe Search
Kathryn Bigelow at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival two weeks before winning an Oscar for Best Director for "The Hurt Locker" (PHOTO: ASPEN ROCK/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Why Does Hollywood Still Suck at Gender Equality?

• February 22, 2013 • 7:41 AM

Kathryn Bigelow at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival two weeks before winning an Oscar for Best Director for The Hurt Locker (PHOTO: ASPEN ROCK/SHUTTERSTOCK)

It’s 2010, and the room is tight with anticipation. Barbra Streisand, a titan for gender equality in her own right, gingerly opens the envelope. Her voice becomes assertive, “Well, the time has come.”

That night Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win Best Director at the Academy Awards. Her acceptance speech was modest, the words poignant. The orchestra swelled with a bouncy version of “I Am Woman” as she exited, Oscar in hand.

Bigelow’s win was a major milestone in Hollywood, where women historically—big surprise—have been shuttered into the second tier. Some predictably ignored its significance, focusing instead on the fact that her win for The Hurt Locker came at the expense of her ex-husband James Cameron’s “Avatar.” Others saw it as a floodgate opening, demonstrating that big-money studios can invest—soundly—in female filmmakers.

The University of Southern California’s Stacy Smith included Bigelow in her research exploring the role of women within Best Picture-nominated films. Between 2007 to 2010, 14.3 percent of directors, 12.3 percent of writers and 23.9 percent of producers were female. The good news? Female directors of nominated films had risen—between 1997 and 2006, only 3.9 percent of directors were women. The bad news? Even those higher figures are painfully low.

Advocates and researchers became curious about the “Bigelow Effect“—the idea that Bigelow’s directorial success would open the door for other women. In the paper “The Celluloid Ceiling,” San Diego State’s Martha Lauzen analyzed the employment of women in the top 260 films of 2011. The numbers painted a disappointing picture—nothing much had really changed. In 1998, women made up 17 percent of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors. In 2001, the figure was 19 percent. In 2011, 18 percent. The numbers were stagnant.

The number of female writers and executive producers has increased since 2010, but only by inches. For directors alone, 5 percent of all filmmakers of the top 2011 films were women. What happened to the Bigelow Effect?

The Los Angeles Times asked Melissa Silverstein, co-founder of the Athena Film Festival, the same question. She responded that directors and writers are not technically employees of movie studios, so no employment statistics regarding diversity—a visual reminder of a need for change—really exist. “If this were a Fortune 500 company and they looked at these statistics, they would have a diversity committee working on this immediately,” Silverstein remarked. “How could you have a company in the 21st century and less than 10 percent of its leaders are women?”

This year’s nominations include no female candidates for Best Director—not even Bigelow with her Best Picture-nominated Zero Dark Thirty. Of the writers, those in the categories of Adapted and Original Screenplay, one is a woman. Eight executive producers on the ballot are women, sharing the space with 20 men. (Encouragingly, the indie world is dramatically better at equality. In new research (pdf), Smith reported that 23.9 percent of directors at the Sundance festival between 2002 to 2012 were female, compared to the 4.4 percent figure for the 100 biggest grossing films in that same period.)

In the documentary MissRepresentation, actress Rosario Dawson speaks to the need for more women writers and for scripts that reflect raw female experience: “To really have true equality, it also means representing the women out there who sometimes aren’t the best and sometimes do make mistakes. … That’s why it’s extremely important for women to be writing their own stories.”

And on screen? Women have 32.6 percent of speaking roles in the films that win golden statues.

An increase of women behind the scenes likely would raise that number. Smith’s study found that Best Picture-nominated films with at least one female screenwriter featured more girls and women on screen than those with none. That’s 44 percent more Clarices, Violas and Junes on screen, demanding attention.

Bigelow’s Maya, in Zero Dark Thirty, exists and excels in an environment dominated by men. The same could be said of her director. But if Hollywood really is to be the mirror of society and driver of policy that it’s simultaneously lauded and criticized for, it has a long way to go.

Sarah Sloat
Sarah Sloat is an editorial fellow with Pacific Standard. She was previously selected as an intern for the Sara Miller McCune Endowed Internship and Public Service Program and has studied abroad in both Argentina and the U.K. Sarah has recently graduated from the University of California-Santa Barbara with a degree in Global and International Studies. Follow her on Twitter @sarahshmee.

More From Sarah Sloat

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


July 21 • 4:00 PM

Do You Have to Learn How to Get High?

All drugs are socially constructed.


July 21 • 2:14 PM

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.


July 21 • 2:00 PM

Why Are Obstetricians Among the Top Billers for Group Psychotherapy in Illinois?

Illinois leads the country in group psychotherapy sessions in Medicare, and some top billers aren’t mental health specialists. The state’s Medicaid program has cracked down, but federal officials have not.



July 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, MacArthur Genius?

Noah Davis talks to Yoky Matsuoka about youth tennis, wanting to be an airhead, and what it’s like to win a Genius Grant.


July 21 • 11:23 AM

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?


July 21 • 10:00 AM

How Small-D Democratic Should Our Political Parties Be?

We need to decide how primaries should work in this country before they get completely out of hand and the voters are left out entirely.


July 21 • 8:00 AM

No, Walking on All 4 Limbs Is Not a Sign of Human ‘Devolution’

New quantitative analysis reveals that people with Uner Tan Syndrome don’t actually walk like primates at all.


July 21 • 6:00 AM

Sequenced in the U.S.A.: A Desperate Town Hands Over Its DNA

The new American economy in three tablespoons of blood, a Walmart gift card, and a former mill town’s DNA.


July 21 • 5:00 AM

Celebrating Independence: Scenes From 59 Days Around the World

While national identities are often used to separate people, a husband-and-wife Facebook photography project aims to build connections.


July 21 • 4:00 AM

Be a Better Person: Take a Walk in the Park

New research from France finds strangers are more helpful if they’ve just strolled through a natural environment.



July 18 • 4:00 PM

The Litany of Problems With the Pentagon’s Effort to Recover MIAs

A draft inspector general report found that the mission lacks basic metrics for how to do the job—and when to end it.


July 18 • 2:00 PM

Sure, the Jobs Are Back, but We Need a Lot More

We’re back to where we were before the 2008 recession, but there are now 12 million more people in the United States.


July 18 • 12:00 PM

What Are the Benefits of Government-Funded Research?

Congress wants to know.


July 18 • 10:31 AM

Why Didn’t California’s Handheld Phone Ban Reduce Motor Accidents?

Are handheld cell phones as dangerous as they have been made out to be?


July 18 • 10:00 AM

The Upside of Economic Downturns: Better Childhood Health

For children, the benefits of being born in tough times can outweigh the costs.


July 18 • 9:48 AM

What Tech Talent Shortage? Microsoft Trims 18,000 Employees From Payroll

Like manufacturing before it, the Innovation Economy has reached a turning point, with jobs moving to places where labor is cheaper.


July 18 • 8:00 AM

The Academic of Comic Books

Kim O’Connor talks to Hillary Chute about comics as objects of criticism, the role of female cartoonists, and the art world’s evolving relationship with the form.


July 18 • 6:00 AM

The Supreme Court’s ‘Hobby Lobby’ Ruling Isn’t a Women’s Health Issue

It’s a private health issue. And it affects us all.


July 18 • 4:00 AM

‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ Comes Easier to the Danes

New research finds the closer a nation is to the genetic make-up of Denmark, the happier its citizens are.


July 17 • 4:00 PM

A Way for Feminism to Overcome Its ‘Class Problem’

A growing body of research indicates that there are few other interventions that improve the economic prospects and work-life balance of women workers as much as unions do.


July 17 • 2:00 PM

How a Fanny Pack Mix-Up Unraveled a Massive Medicare Fraud Scheme

Two secretaries in a doctor’s office have pleaded guilty and a pharmacy owner faces charges in a scam that Medicare allowed to thrive for more than two years.


July 17 • 12:00 PM

‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ Makes a Great Argument for Sex

We could all learn a thing or two from our close cousin, the bonobo.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?

No, Walking on All 4 Limbs Is Not a Sign of Human ‘Devolution’

New quantitative analysis reveals that people with Uner Tan Syndrome don't actually walk like primates at all.

Why Didn’t California’s Handheld Phone Ban Reduce Motor Accidents?

Are handheld cell phones as dangerous as they have been made out to be?

The Upside of Economic Downturns: Better Childhood Health

For children, the benefits of being born in tough times can outweigh the costs.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.