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#PressForProgress: Evidencing gender inequality in the arts

Also: Women in film: what does the data say? (

November 28, 201828 November 2018

Women in the arts



Cath Sleeman

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These research-based blog posts attempt to find “innovative ways of tracking gender balance” by using existing alternative datasets (i.e., “big data”) to explore the situation of women in certain areas of the arts in the United Kingdom (UK) and elsewhere. The research underpinning the posts typically counts all people in a particular occupation or sector. However, incomplete coverage is a key limitation of big data: existing databases may not cover all workers or all sectors.

In music, the posts include an examination of the composers featured at the Proms – billed as “the world’s greatest classical music festival”, which began in London in 1895. The posts highlight how “women made up just 9 of the 120 composers whose works appeared in the Proms’ 2017 season.” In fact, “women often featured more frequently in the Proms during the early 20th century than they have in recent years.”

In the publishing sector, researchers analyzed the texts of more than 100,000 novels published over a 200-year period. “In books written by men, women occupied on average just a quarter to one third of the character-space. In books by women, the division was much closer to being equal. The authors describe the gender gap as being ‘depressingly stable’ over the 200-year period.”

Based on facial recognition of the 100 highest grossing live-action films in the United States in 2014, 2015, and 2016, researchers found that “men were seen and heard almost twice as often as women, with women occupying just 36% of screen time and 35% of speaking time.”

Many of the findings in the posts highlight the situation of women in the UK film industry:

  • “There has been no meaningful improvement in the on-screen gender mix since the end of World War II”, with women still accounting for about 30% of on-screen roles.
  • Over their careers, “men appeared in more films on average than women and had a longer gap between their first and last films (a basic measure of career length). On a positive note, these gaps appear to be narrowing over time.”
  • “Unnamed characters who work in high-skilled occupations (e.g. doctor) are much more likely to be portrayed by men than women.” For example, since 2005, “only 16% of unnamed doctors in UK films have been played by women, despite women now comprising 52% of doctors” in the UK.
  • “Over the last 100 years, the five unnamed roles most likely to be played by women, rather than men, were prostitute, housekeeper, nurse, secretary and receptionist.”
  • In 1,966 scripts for films released between 1929 and 2015, “women had a high likelihood (relative to men) to be asked to ‘snuggle’, ‘giggle’, ‘squeal’ and ‘sob’. Conversely men were more likely to ‘strap’, ‘gallop’, ‘shoot’, ‘howl’ and ‘kill’.”
  • “In crews, the gender mix has improved, but in some departments women still make up less than 10 per cent of senior roles.”
  • “Films that have one woman in a senior writing or directing role contain relatively more women in their casts.”

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