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There are more women on TV but ageism persists, says new study

The cast of Showtime's <em>Yellowjackets </em>is mostly female.
Brendan Meadows
Brendan Meadows/SHOWTIME
The cast of Showtime's Yellowjackets is mostly female.

A new study shows that women are making strides in the TV industry, with a slight increase in the number of females working both on screen and behind-the-scenes.

The annual Boxed In study from San Diego State University looked at over 3,000 characters and more than 3,800 credits in the 2021-2022 television season to determine the number of women working both on screen and behind the camera. They looked at shows on the major broadcast networks during prime time and all of the top streaming services.

Conducted by the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, the news is pretty bright for people who believe women — about half the population — deserve to play major characters and serve in key, behind-the-scenes roles.

Some takeaways:

•In 2021-22, programs on streaming services featured a slightly higher percentage of female characters in speaking roles (47%) than programs on the broadcast networks (45%). That's a 2% increase for streamers from 2020-21 and no change for broadcast programs.

• Women represented 50% of major characters on streaming programs versus 48% on broadcast network programs. That's a 3% increase for broadcasters and a 2% decline for streamers from 2020-21.

• Broadcast network programs had higher percentages of Black female (28%) and Latina (7%) characters in major roles than programs on streaming services (21% and 3%, respectively). Streaming programs included a higher percentage of Asian and Asian American females than those on the broadcast networks (15% vs. 10%).

• Women comprised 37% of individuals working in key behind-the-scenes roles on streaming programs but 31% on broadcast network programs.

Ageism in Hollywood is as old as the hills

"It's like you go from sexy to Depends," Brooke Shields told NPR earlier this year. "And there's this whole margin in the middle that ... are vibrant." The Boxed In study has some data to back that up.

"At about the age of 40, female characters begin to disappear in substantial numbers from both broadcast and streaming programs," the report concludes. "On broadcast programs, the percentage of major female characters plummeted from 42% in their 30s to 15% in their 40s. Similarly, on streaming programs the percentage of major females dropped from 33% in their 30s to 14% in their 40s."

Over 60? You're probably not seeing yourself represented much at all on screen, despite the fact that the U.S. population is aging.

• Women 60 and over continue to be dramatically under-represented. Women comprised just 3% of major female characters 60 and over on broadcast programs and 3% on streaming programs.

The absence of older women on screen is "such a dated gender stereotype that I'm always surprised to see that it remains in both television and film," said Dr. Martha Lauzen, professor and executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. In an email to NPR, Lauzen added that the age disparity "has been consistent" since she started conducting the studies over 20 years ago.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.