Gender Representation in Student Screenplays

by kipress

In my intro screenwriting class, we do table reads of the students’ short scripts before workshopping them. This year I started to notice that men seemed to be cast more than women.

There’s lot of research out there about unequal representation of gender in a variety of media. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is a good starting place–it specializes in research on gender representation in family films. It also has a good list of links to other research, including info on the dearth of female writers and directors.

The Playwrights Guild of Canada’s Equity in Theatre project exists to “remedy existing gender and related inequities in the theatre industry.” In the literary world, Canadian CWILA and U.S. VIDA keep track of whose books are being reviewed and by whom. And here’s an article about research on gender representation in children’s literature.

Many of these groups and research projects either take or are working towards an approach which tracks many varieties of inequity — by gender identity, race, sexual orientation, disability, and more.

So, I decided to see if the funny feeling I was getting in class played out by the numbers. I’d like to emphasize these are quite preliminary, rough numbers, using only the cast lists provided by the authors. “Lead” roles are determined only by the cast list and my gut feeling. I’d like to re-do this someday actually counting lines and perhaps taking other notes on the nature of the roles.

Narrators reading the scene directions were not counted. I counted speaking parts only, with the exception of silent films, where I counted all the parts. My sample size is relatively small, though bigger than many creative writing courses. Fifty-seven scripts were analyzed. I’ve analyzed only for gender.


One part was written for a trans man, about 48% parts for women, and 51% parts for men. So far, so good. Men and women both tended to write slightly more parts for their own gender, an effect slightly more pronounced with male authors, but which worked out into roughly equal numbers of parts since the class makeup is over 60% women.

That’s for overall parts. Things look at bit different when we look at leading roles, a difference which is probably the source of the funny feeling I was getting in class:


That would be about twice as many male leads as female leads. Here it is broken down by gender of author:

Male authors wrote male leads about three-quarters of the time — which I don’t find surprising. The most interesting number in all of this for me: women authors wrote leading roles for women only 39% of the time.

As an instructor, what can I do about this? Some ideas:

  • keep tracking numbers
  • include issue in curriculum before embarking on script writing  (e.g. readings from the links I posted at the top)
  • source and use more examples in class that feature women in leading roles (I admit I haven’t done this at all, and usually use commonly referenced or easily available examples)

Any other ideas?