Media Depictions of Women: An Update

June 06, 2019

Written by: Vanessa Reich-Shackelford

When I first introduced the idea of our Media Depictions of Women in STEM, the representation of women in STEM in popular media was pretty grim. While women characters who were in STEM did encourage more women to pursue studies in STEM, such as in forensic science, male characters received two times the amount of screen time as female characters in 2015, and characters who were men appeared on screen nearly three times more often than characters who were women.

So, how are things doing 2 years later? Spoiler alert: Not a lot better.

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media released a report to “establish benchmark measures for the percentage of protagonists who are women, people of color, LGBTQIA, and people with disabilities in family films, so that we can quantify progress over time.” In short, the study found that family films with female leads are outearning male leads, yet male characters still outnumber female characters two to one.

But, when asking the question of whether or not women are well represented in media, we have to look at intersectionality, identifying how different aspects of social and political discrimination overlap with gender. This report by the Geena Davis Institute does just that, as seen above in their mandate for the report. Here are some of the fast facts that the report uncovered:

Source: American Psychology Association


- Male leads vastly outnumber female leads – 71.3% to 28.8%, which means that men’s stories were featured twice as often as women’s stories.
- We see fluctuations in women’s representation from 2007 to 2017, but the trend is upward, meaning that more women were cast in leading roles by the end of the decade than the start of the decade. In 2007, 23.8% of leads were women compared to 30.1% in 2017, with a high of 33.3% in 2016.
- A decade ago, family films with male leads earned significantly more revenue than films with female leads, but this reversed by 2016 when female leads grossed $94.3 million compared to $88.0 million for male leads. In 2017, female leads surpassed male leads again— $80.1 million compared to $78.4 million.

Source: Science Museum of Minnesota


- Although people of colour comprise 39.0% of the population in the US (22.3% in Canada in 2016), previous studies have found that they remain underrepresented in every form of entertainment media.
- The Geena Davis Institute report shows that the vast majority of leads from the past decade are white (83.4%) while less than one-in-five leads are of colour (16.7%).
- Among leads of colour, 74.0% are male and 26.0% are female. This means the gender gap in leading roles is even more pronounced for leads of colour than white leads.
- 40% of filmgoers today are people of colour.

Source: Quartz


- In the US, 3.4% of people identify as LGBTQIA (in Canada, in 2014, 1.7% of Canadians aged 18-59 reported that they consider themselves to be homosexual [gay or lesbian] and 1.3% of Canadians aged 18-59 reported they consider themselves to be bisexual. Transgender and non-binary Canadians are not being represented enough in national data for various reasons, which is explored in depth in this article.)
- LGBTQIA people barely exist as leading characters in family films
- Family films with LGBTQIA leads were scattered across the decade of 2007-2017 in 2007, 2009, 2014, and 2017, adding up to 0.4% of leading characters being LGBTQIA. This also means there is no clear progress for this group over the decade.

Source: Philosophy Talk

People With Disabilities

- In the US, 18.7% of people have a physical or cognitive disability, but their stories are rarely told in family films (13.7% of Canadians live with a disability).
- Fewer than 1% of leading characters (0.9%) were shown as a person with a disability in the top grossing family films between 2007-2017 and their representation has not improved over that decade.

This study finds that there is progress made for female leading characters, but women are far from achieving parity with men as leads in family films. Leads of colour, LGBTQIA individuals, and individuals with disabilities are further underrepresented. For the latter 2 groups, there has been no measurable progress, while the representation of leads of colour has improved slightly.

The report offers some recommendations, namely that hiring in film must be diversified in writing rooms and throughout the creative process; as well as distributing and marketing resources equally. Studios must also commit to making more family films about the lives of women, people of colour, LGBTQIA individuals, and people with disabilities, and then ensure that these films reach the widest audience possible by equitably promoting them. They also suggest a very fast way to improve representation is to make sure that the worlds that are depicted and re-created in family films look like the real world in terms of whose stories are told.

Here at WWEST, we will do our part by continuing to examine how women in STEM are represented in media, to raise awareness of this aspect of film production.

There are some figures that are not included in this blog post. To see the full Geena Davis Institute report, click here. Another comprehensive resource for statistics on gender equality in media was compiled by the Global Media Monitoring Project and can be found here.
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