Netflix Outpaces Most Studios and Networks When It Comes to Hiring Female Directors and Creatives

A new study finds the streaming giant has made major strides in gender equality behind the camera, but more must be done for other groups. A $100 million fund will certainly help.
Gina Prince-Bythewood on "The Old Guard" set with stars KiKi Layne and Charlize Theron.
Gina Prince-Bythewood on "The Old Guard" set with stars KiKi Layne and Charlize Theron

Each year, the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, headed up by Dr. Stacy L. Smith, offers a variety of studies that aim to unpack inclusion and diversity both in front of and behind the camera. For many years, those studies have used top-earning films and popular series as their focus, but a new study opens the information pool by turning its focus solely on Netflix. The heavy-hitting streamer has teamed up with the initiative and Dr. Smith to examine its slate of both films and scripted series released during the 2018 and 2019 calendar years for a new study entitled “Inclusion in Netflix Original U.S. Scripted Films & Series.”

This new study, which uses a sampling of 126 films and 180 series (all U.S.-based, all released in 2018 or 2019) as a starting point to continue to examine the streamer’s inclusion evolutions. (Of note, “When possible, [the initiative] compared Netflix findings to the broader industry using the 100 top-grossing films or episodic content evaluated during roughly the same time frame.”) This first study finds both much to celebrate and plenty of opportunities for improvement.

Some top-line findings include some major strides forward, with Netflix far outpacing most studios and networks when it comes to hiring female directors and other creatives. On the film side, of the 130 directors examined, 76.9 percent were men and 23.1 percent were women. Compared to the top-grossing films from 2018 and 2019, female representation was much higher at the streamer (for the top films, the study reminds that in 2018, 4.5 percent were directed by women, while in 2019, that number jumped to 10.7 percent).

When it comes to screenwriters, 25.2 percent of the examined Netflix films examined were written by women, compared to the top-grossing studio films during the same time period (just 16.7 percent during the same two-year period). Similar numbers were found when it comes to female producers: Netflix’s films were produced by 29 percent women, compared to the top-grossing films, which were produced by 19 percent women during the same time period.

A similar story played out on the TV side. Of Netflix’s examined scripted series, 29.8 percent were created by women, compared to an industry average of 22 percent. Writers were comprised of 36.4 percent women, while the industry average held at 30 percent. Elsewhere, the streamer kept pace with the industry averages: over a third (36.7 percent) of credited producers on series were women (compared to an industry average of 40 percent), while female directors made up 27.7 percent on the series side, compared to an industry average of 28 percent.

13 Reasons Why Season 3 Netflix
Alisha Boe and Bex Taylor-Klaus in “13 Reasons Why”David Moir/Netflix

In front of the camera, the news was more mixed. The study found that 52 percent of all Netflix films and scripted series were driven by girls/women across two years, with an increase in female-identified protagonists over time: 2019 (55.2 percent) featured more stories with women and girls at the center than 2018 (48.6 percent). Still, when it comes to all cast members, the numbers aren’t equal: “A total of 12,168 speaking characters were evaluated across 2 years of Netflix films and series. 61.2 percent of speaking characters were male-identified, 38.8 percent were female-identified and <1% percent were non-binary.”

The study also examined other factors beyond gender, including race and ethnicity, with the initiative finding that “Netflix values putting underrepresented communities at the center of its content,” with some caveats. Focusing on underrepresented casts, only 11.4 percent of all Netflix stories were at or near proportional representation (35.9 percent-43.9 percent) with U.S. Census. The study did not “that more than a quarter (27.1 percent) of all stories exceeded proportional representation” and “the percentage of stories that surpassed proportional representation increased over time (2018=20.8 percent, 2019=33.1 percent).”

When it comes to such representation behind the camera, Netflix has plenty of room for improvement. The study found that “only 16.9 percent of film directors were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups,” compared to the number of such directors from top-grossing films (20.5 percent). On the TV side, “of series creators, only 12.2 percent,” compared to the industry average of 10.4 percent, though Netflix did nearly double such creators from year to year.

Even more information is available in the full study, including a close examination of the intersection of race and ethnicity, LGBTQ representation, disabled representation, a more fine-toothed look at ethnicity breakdowns (including Black, Latinx, Asian, Middle Eastern/North African, American Indian/Alaskan Native, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander designations), and a deeper read on other crew positions. You can read the executive summary right here​ ​and the full report​ ​right here.

In conclusion, Dr. Smith and her team note that “this report provides an acknowledgement of where Netflix has made progress toward inclusion — for women on screen and behind the scenes, for Black casts and creatives, and for women of color in leading and main cast roles. This study also points to where accelerated change is necessary, particularly for specific racial/ethnic groups, the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities.”

"One Day at a Time"
“One Day at a Time”Netflix

In a new blog timed to the release of the study, Netflix co-CEO and chief content officer Ted Sarandos acknowledged the necessity of this study, writing that, as the streaming service continued to expand its original offerings, the team couldn’t help but think “we were making progress… but were we really, and was it enough?”

As Sarandos explained, “To answer that question, we asked Dr. Stacy L. Smith, the founder and director of USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, to study our U.S.-commissioned films and series over a two-year period from 2018 to 2019. … The resulting USC Annenberg report, out today, analyzes the makeup of Netflix’s on screen talent as well as our creators, producers, writers and directors. … We’ve released this report in the interests of transparency. Because without this kind of information it’s very hard to judge whether we’re improving or not. And the report makes clear that while Netflix has made advances in representation year-over-year, we still have a long way to go.”

It’s also just the start. Per today’s release of the first-of-its-kind study, “This report serves as the first of multiple studies from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative to evaluate Netflix content. This future work will examine the portrayal of characters based on gender identity, race/ethnicity, sexuality, and disability is necessary and a goal of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and Netflix.” Later reports will be “designed to investigate how Netflix has addressed existing inclusion gaps and the progress made toward greater authenticity on screen and representation behind the camera.”

Sarandos noted that the streamer is committed to these new studies through 2026, and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and Dr. Smith will release a new one every two years until then.

Moreover, as Saranados wrote, “Doing better means establishing even more opportunities for people from underrepresented communities to have their voices heard, and purposefully closing capacity and skill gaps with training programs where they are needed. So we are excited today to announce the creation of the Netflix Fund for Creative Equity.”

The new fund will invest $100 million dollars over the next five years “in a combination of external organizations with a strong track record of setting underrepresented communities up for success in the TV and film industries, as well as bespoke Netflix programs that will help us to identify, train, and provide job placement for up-and-coming talent globally.”

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