Your Favorite Female TV Character Isn’t Getting That Promotion And Neither Are You

Though we had a record-breaking year for women in the senate, in so many other industries we are seeing women get sidelined. A new Catalyst study of 1,660 MBA grads worldwide found that women are not getting the ‘hot jobs’ aka the ones with large budgets and staffs. And according to another study, art is imitating life or could it be the other way around? Females in prime-time series also face inequity on screen – across eight industries, men are still promoted over women on prime-time television and in movies.

According to the study led by USC Annenberg Professor Stacy L. Smith and funded by The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, female characters on TV account for only 34.4% of the employees depicted in prime-time, 20.3% of those shown in popular films and 25.3% of those portrayed in children’s shows. Almost no females are shown at work in engineering or mathematical occupations; more women are depicted working in the life and physical sciences in prime-time television and popular films. Across all three media, male characters appear in science, technology, engineering and math jobs more than 4.5 times as often as females.

The study analyzed 11,927 speaking characters across 129 popular family films, 275 prime-time programs on 10 channels and 36 episodes of children’s television series. The researchers examined prevalence, hypersexualization and employment patterns for speaking characters.

“We know from research that media characters can serve as aspirational role models for developing youth,” said Smith, the associate professor at USC Annenberg who was the principal investigator for the research. “Kids would have to watch a lot of traditional media content to find a Sheryl Sandberg, Condoleezza Rice, or Sandra Day O’Connor.”

The study also found that not only were these women not working great jobs but their characters were also highly sexualized compared to the men. They were also usually seen in traditional roles, like mother and wife. Across prime-time series and family films, females are hypersexualized more than males, notably women between age 21 and 39.

The study makes some interesting points and I do think on shows like Sesame Street, which focus on education, young children should be exposed to seeing successful women in different roles besides wife and mother. We recently saw a great example of that with Justice Sonia Sotomayor recent appearance on Sesame Street. 

But we can’t have Supreme Court Justices on every show. And sometimes I think it is okay to have a female character be unemployed or transitioning if it helps the story. For example , on New Girl the female protagonist Jess got laid off the in the beginning of the season from her teaching job. She actually just got rehired in last night’s episode but this gave her a good story line. That show also features a lot of female bosses (except one did throw herself at her employee last night which doesn’t help this argument.) Also, a lot of perfectly smart women are unemployed right now. The 2 Broke Girls aren’t engineers (they are waitresses), but they are saving to build a business, which I think is great for young women to see.

But for every Chicago Fire female rescuer and Secretary of State Elaine Barrish on Political Animals (which was not renewed) we have about 17 Kardashians. That is a lot of highly sexualized poor role models running around the television. Now that is “reality” TV but on shows, like a sweet ABC Family film, it could be just as easy to have the mom coming home to her family from her job as an engineer then to have her standing in the kitchen cooking.

“My theory is that if we can change what kids see, if they can see boys and girls sharing the same sandbox equally in the beginning, that will impact how boys view girls and how girls view girls later on in life,” said Geena Davis. “If the ratio of 50-50 starts to become the norm in what they see, then that will be something that they expect. Then if they go into a board meeting and there’s only one or two women, they actually might say, ‘Hey, where’s the rest of the women?’” As far as that is concerned, I hope we can put ourselves out of business.”

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