Twentieth Century Fox released Hidden Figures in 2016. The movie, set in the 1950s, was an ode to three female African American NASA mathematicians who played critical roles to help launch astronaut John Glenn to orbit in an era rife with racial and gender discrimination in the workplace. Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, and Octavia Spencer did absolute justice to their roles, showing how much the female mind has brought to the table.
We don’t live in that world anymore, of course. The movement for gender inclusion has come a long way with women occupying strategic positions of authority across different industries. But you get a sense that there’s still a lot to be done. This problem persists in Hollywood too, especially with roles and responsibilities behind the camera and generally on the business side of the industry.
“Women are more than just pretty faces and nice bodies. As wonderful as we can be on the screen, we can be even more behind the scenes,” says Sayo—a Japanese A-list model – who’s working on various initiatives to push women’s inclusion in tech and other areas of endeavor. “The world population is about 49 per cent female. If we’re to interpret this loosely, stereotyping women as only visually beneficial and denying them opportunities in business and administration means you’re literally losing out on 50 per cent of global brain power.”
Sayo has been modeling for over a decade and is globally known in the swimsuit industry, appearing on magazine covers like Harper’s Bazaar and L’Officiel amongst others. Sayo’s insistence on women’s ability to break the mold has led her to broaden her horizon over the years, she has invested and been involved with different businesses and venture capital companies across industries, ranging from tech to fashion and to crypto. In her words, “I think women immediately have a challenge with showing themselves as leaders in tech and finance because the majority of the time it has been men who are occupying this area mostly. So, showing and proving my credibility has been challenging and important to demonstrate perspective and ultimately my capability as a woman in these spaces.”
The gender bias in opportunities and income
The bias against women in media and entertainment might not look as obvious when it comes to on-screen opportunities. But if you were to take a tour of the crew lineup of most television and film projects, the dearth becomes more obvious. Simply put, women in entertainment are shortchanged for jobs as actors, crew members, and even in office roles and remuneration.
In a publication by Forbes, it was revealed that the top-10 highest paid actresses of 2018 made 30 cents for every dollar raked in by their male counterparts. This translated to a combined $186 million for the highest paid actresses and $748.5 million for the highest paid actors. An especially cringe-worthy example of this gender pay gap was seen in the remuneration for the 2017 movie, All the Money in the World. Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams both had approximately equal screen time, but Wahlberg reportedly received $5 million while Williams reportedly got $625,000. After Kevin Spacey’s sexual assault scandal caused 22 scenes to be reshot, Wahlberg again landed an additional $1.5 million, and Williams only pocketed $1000.
Even more alarming is the fact that by 2018, female representation in entertainment and media was on the uptrend, which gives you an idea of how bad things were prior to that time.
Female representation behind the scenes, while on an upward trend, hasn’t been wonderful either. Between 2008 and 2022, there have been 325 nominations for directors at major award events—only 8.9 percent of those nominations were given to female directors. In a study sponsored by San Diego State University focusing on the top 250 highest-grossing movies of 2021 in the U.S., only 25 per cent of behind-the-scenes roles were filled by women. The percentage of female editors was 22 percent and was even less at 17 per cent each for directors and writers. The number of female cinematographers was an abysmal six out of every 100. When it comes to C-suite positions in media and entertainment, only 27 per cent are held by women.
Amy Baer, former head of CBS Films, who left in 2011, responsible for overseeing My Best Friend’s Wedding and Moneyballstruggled to raise the few million dollars it took to start her own boutique firm – Gidden Media – at the time.
Talking to Variety she said, “I wasn’t being presented the same kinds of opportunities as men that I knew who had very similar circumstances and were suddenly being handed massive deals,” Baer recalls. “It wasn’t because I didn’t want to raise the money. I knew how to write a business plan. I had dozens of meetings and ended up raising the funds from a person who had a high net worth who was willing, by virtue of a personal relationship, to invest in me. But you can’t rely on that.”
Sayo isn’t surprised by all the data pointing to the underrepresentation and underappreciation of women in entertainment and the wider media industry. “This has been my normal for a very long time. We’ve had to be aggressive to make any sort of headway in our careers. Even in my primary industry, women make up over 70 per cent of the fashion industry’s workforce, but only have 25 per cent of the leadership positions of the top fashion companies,” reveals Sayo. “It’s a different kind of marginalization that also places a glass ceiling above our heads.”
The tide is turning but it needs more speed
As mentioned earlier, the representation of women on-camera and off-camera keeps getting better year on year. Perhaps the biggest problem is that from an overall viewpoint, it isn’t growing nearly fast enough.
That’s why celebrities in entertainment are moving the needle themselves. This is evidenced in the fact that the only area that noticed significant growth in women’s representation in 2021 was the executive producer role. Some powerful women that have made massive strides as executive producers, producers, and directors include Viola Davis, Ava DuVernay, Tina Fey, Shonda Rhimes, Margot Robbie, and Octavia Spencer, amongst others. Even one of Hollywood’s shining lights, Marsai Martin, one of the kid stars of Black-ish and Mixed-ish series, belongs in this category of industry juggernauts. Still relatively young in the industry, she has already started her own production company, Genius Productions.
According to the study “Indie Women: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women in U.S. Independent Film, 2021-22” done by Dr Martha M. Lauzen the executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University lower budgets productions are seeing an increase in female representation.
“Documentaries continue to employ higher percentages of women filmmakers than narrative features, and independent films offer more opportunities for women than larger budget features,” Dr. Lauzen said in a press release.
Women are also beginning to ascend to executive roles in production companies and studios. Names like Victoria Alonso (Executive VP Production, Marvel Studios), Sarah Aubrey (Head of Original Content, HBO Max), and Bela Bajaria (Head of Global TV, Netflix NFLX ) come to mind. Hollywood’s women are banding together, forcing themselves into the conversation and causing policy changes that protect women and avail them a wider range of opportunities in all levels of the entertainment hierarchy.
As women increasingly take on top-tier roles in entertainment, it can only lead to an increase in roles available to women and a richer, more rewarding experience as workers in the entertainment industry. More women getting into positions on the screen, behind the scenes, and in the corner offices of Hollywood and beyond can only be a good thing for entertainment and the wider world.