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Why men win more Oscars than women

Nadine Wojcik
April 24, 2021

It's a sensation: Chloe Zhao and Emerald Fennell are nominated in the best director category. But for the most part, the Oscars are still a male affair.

A representative diagram shows that 68 women and 147 men have been nominated for the Oscar awards this year
The Oscars' gender gap: Percentage of nominations given to men vs. women in 2021, excluding acting categories. Source: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

"The Oscar goes to..." — in purely statistical terms, the name that follows will be a man's. After all, 68% of the contenders for the prestigious trophy are male, which means that in 2021, men will receive the majority of Oscars. The good news is that the percentage of women nominated for an award is on the rise: 28.5% last year compared to 32% this year, according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Two female directors are in the running, too: Chloe Zhao and Emerald Fennell. The fact that two women have been nominated in the Best Director category for the first time this year is considered a sensation.

Since the first awards ceremony in 1929, only five women were nominated for that prize altogether, and only one took it home: Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (2009). After a total of 92 award ceremonies, that makes for a male-to-female ratio of 92:1. Coincidence? Bigelow's war film stars many men in stereotypical male roles.

First female nominees for best director

The best director category is symbolic: No other job on the set is as important or powerful. However, it is not only in the film industry that seems to find it difficult to trust women with leadership roles.

Filming Nomadland, director Chloe Zhao with actress Frances McDormand on set
'Nomadland' director Chloe Zhao with actress Frances McDormand on set Image: Searchlight Pictures/AP/dpa/picture alliance

In 2019, Greta Gerwig's highly acclaimed Little Women hit the screen. At the following Academy Awards, the coming-of-age film about four sisters was nominated in six categories, including best film — but not for best director.

Many women used #OscarsSoMale on Twitter to vent their anger about the glaring gender gap. At the ceremony, actor Natalie Portman walked the red carpet in a gown embroidered in gold with the names of the women she felt deserved an Oscar, including director Gerwig.

Powerful movements

The new female self-confidence emerged after one of the biggest scandals in Hollywood history. In 2017, more than 100 women publicly testified against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, triggering the worldwide #MeToo movement. It was an open secret that the powerful US film producer had a preference for young actresses, but everyone remained silent. In February 2020, Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison for rape and sexual assault.

Time's Up is the name of an initiative launched in 2018 by more than 300 female filmmakers, actors and producers. Founded as legal support for sexually harassed female colleagues, Time's Up has long since advanced to one of the most important lobby organizations for gender justice in the film industry.

Oscar 2021 nominations by gender and category
Oscar 2021 nominations by gender and category

The film industry has clearly been shaken up, and even the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which has been criticized for the past few years, is taking a new approach. Its members traditionally nominate the Oscar winners— an award given by colleagues to colleagues. Only those who have previously been nominated, or who are nominated by two members, may become members. That is how the elitist, white, old men's club worked for decades. But change is in the air. For the past five years, the academy has been aggressively inviting new members, half of whom are women. As a result, their share of the approximately 9,000-member film family has now risen to 32%, up from 25% in 2015.

Female directors 'part of the solution'

"What we see on screen and what we see in the world do not match," Stacy Smith, an expert on inequality in the entertainment industry, said in a TED talk about gender inequality in a film entitled The Data Behind Hollywood's Sexism. TED is a nonpartisan nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short talks.

The researcher, activist and professor of communication at the University of South California has been providing scientific facts about the gender gap for years via the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative (AII) that she founded, a think tank that studies diversity and inclusion in entertainment. For the annual statistics, AII catalogues films for gender distribution. In 2019, for instance, only 34% of all roles were played by women.

Smith calls it the "epidemic of invisibility."

The proportion has only changed by a few percentage points over the decades. The numbers are similar concerning film reception: two out of three US film reviews are written by men, says Los Angeles-based Women in Film (WIF), an organization that advocates and advances the careers of women working in the screen industries.

To change the prevailing pattern, Stacy Smith advocates simply hiring more female directors. "Female directors are associated with, in terms of short films and indie films, more girls and women on screen, more stories with women in the center, more stories with women 40 years and older on the screen, more underrated characters in terms of race and ethnicity and most importantly, more women working behind the camera in key production roles."

The technical-creative field in particular continues to be in male hands, she added. In the 92-year Oscar history, only one woman has been nominated for Best Cinematography, and four in the Visual Effects category.

Helena Zengel: The Rising Star

If the Oscars reflect classic gender stereotypes, does that mean women have an edge in "typically female" categories like costume design or makeup? This year, they do: far more women have been nominated in both categories. A look at the past, however, shows more women may have been nominated in costume design with a ratio of 302:221 — but men dominate makeup and hairstyling with 168:108.

Thanks to the ongoing pandemic?

So how did two female contenders get nominated for Best Director? Some observers say that was simply due to the coronavirus pandemic. The release dates of blockbusters with Oscar all-stars like Steven Spielberg's West Side Story, Ridley Scott's The Last Duel and Wes Andersen's The French Dispatch have been postponed because of the crisis, leaving more room for smaller low-budget films that launched via streaming rather than in movie theaters.

As the major studios and their gender-conservative films are taking a year off, 2021 opens up a surprisingly female perspective. Chloe Zhao not only directed the favorite Nomadland, she also wrote the screenplay and edited the film. The film was produced by Frances McDormand, who also plays the lead role.

Whether two women would have been nominated for Best Director without the special circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic, i.e. strong competition from blockbusters, is speculative. It is a fact, however, that the attention they and the smaller films will be getting at the 93rd Oscars award ceremony will make Oscar history.


This article was translated from German by Dagmar Breitenbach