Women's TV roles on screen, behind the scenes 'stagnant,' study finds

'GIRLS' cast: We speak to this generation in an honest way
'GIRLS' cast: We speak to this generation in an honest way

Despite high-profile successes, the percentage of key TV roles for women both on screen and behind the camera did not improve last year, based on an annual study conducted by San Diego State University.

Male characters outnumbered females in 79% of programs, a trend that extended across broadcast, cable and streaming channels. Overall, women accounted for 41% of speaking parts on broadcast television -- the medium with the longest history as the basis for comparison -- virtually unchanged from a decade ago.

A similar lack of movement -- or "stagnation," as Martha Lauzen, executive director of SDSU's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, described it -- applied to women behind the scenes. Only 20% of series creators and 25% of executive producers were women, the study found, virtually unchanged from the previous year.

Lauzen acknowledged that the findings were "at odds" with perceptions of breakthroughs for women in TV, where producers like Shonda Rhimes -- the force behind a quintet of ABC dramas -- have made such prominent inroads. The researcher attributed that -- in part -- to TV being held up against the yardstick of the movie industry, which has been seen as particularly inhospitable in terms of high-quality opportunities for both women and minorities.

Related: Film diversity still lagging

Television has also seen a dramatic increase in the number of original series, creating more work overall -- something that wouldn't be reflected in the study, which focuses on the percentages of those jobs that go to women.

Still, Lauzen said it was surprising to find that the ratios of leading roles or key behind-the-scenes positions for women weren't any higher on cable or streaming services. In fact, the percentage of female characters was actually highest on broadcast TV, which also saw gains for minority actresses versus previous studies.

Among other findings, the study found that women were less likely to be depicted in leadership roles than men, and were generally younger than their male counterparts. That dovetails with a longstanding sense that men possess more opportunities than women as they get older, despite some high-profile exceptions, such as Netflix's "Grace and Frankie," which stars Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda.

Another consistent finding has been that on-screen roles for women tend to increase when females have authority behind the camera. On programs with one or more female executive producers, for example, the percentage of parts for women rose to 48%. Similarly, shows created by least one woman employed far more female writers than those conceived strictly by men.

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