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Women Filmmakers vs. the War of Attrition in Hollywood

By Naomi McDougall Jones

Image credit: Oli Lynch

This summer, life in plastic on the big screen is fantastic! With Barbie, Greta Gerwig has become the first woman director to have a film earn $1 billion at the box office. It only took until 2023 for this to happen in film history. Let’s see if this leads to a Best Director Oscar nom, because so far, there have only been a grand total of seven women directors nominated. At the time Naomi McDougall Jones wrote the following passage from The Wrong Kind of Women: Inside Our Revolution to Dismantle the Gods of Hollywood, there were five nominated women directors. What hasn’t changed, though, is the trenchant sexism baked into the Hollywood system that bars women from succeeding behind the camera. McDougall Jones has the receipts.


Because filmmaking is hard—for anyone, even in the best circumstances—I am well aware that there are still skeptics about whether there is discrimination against women in Hollywood at all. Thus far, I’ve built the case, I hope, for what is happening. But if you work long enough and hard enough at it, you could suggest reasons why discrimination wasn’t at the heart of each anecdote and career story I’ve provided. Let’s zoom out, then, to look at the wide shot of what is happening to women and their careers in Hollywood. Let’s look at the data.

Women are 51 percent of the US population, as the following chart illustrates.

Chart 1

In the following chart is the racial breakdown of the US population, according to the 2017 census.

Chart 2

As we look now at the statistics for women behind the camera, I am going to focus primarily on narrative feature films (fictional films, not documentaries) for the reason that they arguably have greater prestige and larger influence over our cultural narrative. Know that, in general, the percentages of women in documentary film are slightly higher than they are in narrative (though still nowhere close to parity), and I would argue that that’s because jobs in documentary filmmaking tend to be less well-paying and prestigious and the films less costly to make.

I will also often talk about studies that look at “top-grossing” films in a given period. The reason that stratum of films is so often studied is because of the strong correlation between a film’s budget (production and marketing) and the amount it will ultimately gross. Looking at the top-grossing films, then, is an easy way to identify which films have been allocated the greatest amount of resources.

A study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism looked at the top-grossing narrative features from 2007 to 2016. For those 1,000 films, there were 1,114 directors, since some were co-directed by two people.

Of the 1,114 narrative feature film directors, 1,069 were men and 45 were women, as the following graph indicates.

Chart 3

Of those directors, 57 were Black or African American, and 34 were Asian or Asian American. There was 1 Latina director. As the following graph indicates, all the rest—1,022—were white.

Chart 4

Of those 92 non-white directors, 7 were female (3 were black, 3 Asian, and 1 Latina). As the following graph shows, the rest were men.

Chart 5

The following graphs show what that means for the hiring of directors:

Chart 6

The following chart compares what proportional representation would look like against what is actually happening behind the camera in Hollywood.

Chart 7

What we see is this:

  • White male directors are grossly overrepresented, per their presence in the population.
  • All female directors are grossly underrepresented, per their presence in the population.
  • Asian men are represented almost at parity.
  • Black male directors should have had 14 more directors in their category, but are somewhat approaching parity.
  • Latino males and mixed race and Native populations of both genders are not represented at all.
  • Directors with visible disabilities and trans directors are not represented at all.


Now let’s look at how the percentage of male versus female directors of studio films has fluctuated throughout the history of US cinema. It is virtually impossible to get accurate information on any of this prior to about 2010, both because it was much harder to track these numbers prior to the internet and because researchers weren’t studying the issue as they are now, but the following chart is the best picture I can piece together:

Chart 8

That chart has to represent such an enormously wide gap that it can be hard to read, so here is the percentage of female directors of studio films per decade:

  • 1940: 0.5%
  • 1950: 0.5%
  • 1960: 0.5%
  • 1970: 0.5%
  • 1980: 0.5%
  • 1990: 4%
  • 1995: 8%
  • 2010: 7%
  • 2016: 4%
  • 2017: 8%
  • 2018: 4%

Ahhh, progress . . .

You may be wondering if it’s better for women elsewhere behind the scenes in film. The following charts show the percentages of women in other key creative roles for the one hundred top-grossing films in 2018:

Chart 9 Chart 10-12

Data from the one thousand top-grossing films between 2007 and 2016 also reveals that for women who do get to direct any films at all, they make fewer over their careers than their male peers. In fact, as the following chart indicates, the highly elite club of women who got to direct a film during those ten years, 80 percent only got to direct one movie.

Chart 13

These discrepancies are also reflected come awards season. Only five women have ever been nominated for a Best Director Award in the ninety years the Oscars have existed.

  • 1976: Lina Wertmüller
  • 1994: Jane Campion
  • 2004: Sofia Coppola
  • 2010: Kathryn Bigelow (the only woman to have actually won the award)
  • 2018: Greta Gerwig

In addition to noting the paucity of female film directors nominated, it’s important to look more deeply at the commonalities between these lucky few, particularly those shared between the three most recent nominees—Sofia, Kathryn, and Greta—since they represent the contemporary film industry.

All are white, able-bodied, and, as far as we know, cis and straight.

The films for which Sofia and Kathryn were nominated center on male protagonists—Bill Murray in Lost in Translation and Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker. That Kathryn became the only woman in the history of the Oscars to win Best Director for a war movie with a male protagonist is conspicuous.

Greta’s Ladybird centered on a female protagonist, though, notably her nomination for this immediately followed the Weinstein scandals and #MeToo, and it is likely that voters in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were more than usually aware of needing to make a good show of supporting female stories.

But here’s the real kicker. Every one of these three most recent female nominees is either the daughter or the current or former life partner of a man who had previously been nominated for or won an Oscar himself.

Sofia Coppola is the daughter of director Francis Ford Coppola, who has won five Oscars for his work.

Kathryn Bigelow was married for two years to director James Cameron prior to winning her Oscar. He has three Oscars.

Greta Gerwig is the longtime life partner of filmmaker Noah Baumbach, who was nominated for Best Screenplay for his 2006 film The Squid and the Whale.

Here is what that means in the film industry today: in the last quarter century, if you are a woman, even a devastatingly talented, driven, capable woman, but you are not also white, able-bodied, cis, straight, and publicly connected to a male Oscar nominee/winner (preferably a living icon), and ideally making films about men, it has been literally impossible for you to grasp the brass ring of a film directing career.

As some witty person on Twitter said after Alejandro G. Iñárritu won his second Best Director Award, for The Revenant, in 2015, “Alejandro has now personally won more Best Director Awards than . . . women.”

These results are unsurprising given that the academy voters were, as of 2017, 72 percent male and 84 percent white.

Things are only slightly less dire in the worlds of independent and lower-budget films.

Bruce Nash of The Numbers, one of the key databases tracking the box-office performance of films, conducted an analysis that looked at the gender of directors for all films released between 2011 and 2016, examining those that received any kind of distribution whatsoever, from the tiniest indie that got thrown up on a streaming platform all the way up to the big studio films.

Nash’s study revealed the following:

Chart 14-15

The percentage of female directors in the independent film industry seems higher only because the percentage of women directing big studio films is so abysmal.

Chart 16

No matter if it’s an independent or studio film, the numbers don’t come anywhere close to matching the presence of 51 percent of women in the US population. They also don’t track with the number of women interested in becoming filmmakers, since close to 50 percent of film school graduates are female.

As Manohla Dargis of the New York Times wrote, Hollywood’s “sexism isn’t in our imaginations. It isn’t a female fantasy or a ‘hysterical feminist myth.’”

The incredible lack of women in positions behind the camera is, in fact, the result of nearly a century’s worth of illegal hiring discrimination against women, as the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California concluded in 2015.

There is a legal argument, with set precedent, used in the US courts called the “Inexorable Zero.” In layman’s terms, this says that if, in any given industry, profession, or educational system, there are zero members of a given demographic population (e.g., women), it can be assumed, ipso facto, that systemic discrimination is occurring.

The ACLU of Southern California made use of this precedent when it wrote its report after a 2013–2015 investigation into the hiring practices of female directors in Hollywood. They concluded that the Inexorable Zero argument applies to Hollywood’s hiring of directors, since 4 percent of female directors at the studios qualifies as being close to zero.

Melissa Goodman, the ACLU of Southern California’s director of advocacy and legal director, wrote at the end of the investigation: “Women directors aren’t working on an even playing field and aren’t getting a fair opportunity to succeed. . . . Gender discrimination is illegal. And, really, Hollywood doesn’t get this free pass when it comes to civil rights and gender discrimination.”

At the end of the investigation, the ACLU recommended that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) open its own investigation and pursue legal action against the studios for illegal hiring practices. That investigation is ongoing and its present findings are, therefore, confidential.

As those wheels of government and the law turn slowly, however, we women working (or trying to work) in the film industry must continue flinging ourselves against the virtually impenetrable mechanisms of institutionalized and systemic sexism. Every day we persevere with the full knowledge that women, historically and currently, are systematically, and almost totally, being prevented from becoming directors, writers, producers, cinematographers, and almost any other cinematic job we might like to fill in Hollywood.

There is rampant discrimination against women trying to work behind the camera in Hollywood, and the result is and has been our near total exclusion from positions of power within the film industry.

That may be devastating, but it is a fact. It is “inexorable.”

The far trickier accompanying question is “How is it happening?”

There is something satisfying about imagining a cabal of white men sitting at the top of the power pile cackling maniacally and whispering to each other, “Let’s not hire any women. It’ll drive them craaazyyy.” And while I have no doubt that in certain corner offices that is precisely what’s happening, if not in so many words, the more complicated reality is that systems of oppression, particularly in the modern era, work in far subtler formats. In writing this book, I wanted to be able to point cleanly to one or three choke points and say, “Here’s where we’re losing the women. Here’s where they’re being kept out.” Then, I imagined, we could address those things and move on with our careers.

I’m sorry to report that it isn’t that simple.

As I listened to the stories of women’s careers—as long or short, as successful or middling as they were—over one hundred hours’ worth of interviews, I came to understand that we are losing a war of attrition as much as anything else.

The power structures—patriarchal, racial, cultural, financial, all of which are at play here—are so very, very powerful and so very, very entrenched. We women are trying to succeed in a system that at a cellular level was not built for us. To transform that system away from promoting the elevation of white men to the exclusion of virtually everyone else would require a concerted, sustained, and radical effort to disrupt long-standing mechanisms. It would require visionary leadership to strongly, with courage and an intolerance for excuses, implement a new way forward.

Without that, each woman, on an individual career level, must attempt to struggle up a mountain so slick with mud that there is no step made that is completely forward-moving.



About the Author 

Naomi McDougall Jones is an award-winning actress, writer, and producer. Her TED Talk, “What It’s Like to Be a Woman in Hollywood,” ignited a global outpouring of support for the women in film movement. Naomi has written, produced, and acted in two award-winning independent feature films, Imagine I’m Beautiful (2014) and Bite Me (2019), and she is the author of The Wrong Kind of Women: Inside Our Revolution to Dismantle the Gods of Hollywood. Connect with her at and on Twitter (@NaomiMcDougallJ).