CLEMSON, South Carolina – Though there are fewer roles for older female than for older male motion picture actors, it’s unlikely discrimination is the simple explanation behind this phenomenon, according to research conducted by two Clemson University business professors.

Andrew Hanssen and Robert Fleck researched roles and movies made from 1920-2011.

Andrew Hanssen and Robert Fleck researched roles and movies made from 1920-2011.
Image Credit: Craig Mahaffey

Robert Fleck and Andrew Hanssen, economics professors in the John E. Walker Department of Economics, analyzed nearly a century of data on U.S. films and film roles to determine whether there is systematic evidence of gender and age bias among actors and actresses as many in the film industry have claimed.

The Clemson research tapped data from Internet Movie Database (IMDb) on feature films between 1920 and 2011 and involved nearly a half-million different roles played in more than 50,000 films.

Their research found there are indeed fewer roles for older females than older male actors, but on the flip side, there are more roles for younger females than for younger male actors.

“The fact that more roles could be played by either males or females, depending upon their ages, makes it doubtful that a simple theory of discrimination can account for the age-specific gender gaps,” Fleck said of the findings.

Who gets what role may be more tied to moviegoers’ preferences than the discretion of those casting and producing the movies, Hanssen added.

“The majority of popular films have plots that involve one, or both, of two themes: romance and action,” Hanssen said. “Romantic plots, not surprisingly, employ men and women in roughly equal proportions, while action plots employ more men than women. And this has long been the case. The gender mix won’t change unless either the mix of film genres changes or the gender mix within film genres changes — for example, audiences begin clamoring for more action roles for women. There is no evidence that either is happening yet.”

Among some of the research findings:

  • Roughly two-thirds of all roles are filled by men and always have been. Women account for a relatively larger proportion of leading roles than of all credited roles (40 percent versus 28 percent), but are a minority in either case.
  • Over the entire period of time, male actors have been approximately six to 10 years older than female actors, although for both sexes, the average ages have increased over time.
  • Female actors are not only younger than male actors on average, but also start and finish their careers at earlier ages. As a result, a female in her 20s is much more likely to play a leading role than is a male in his 20s. By age 29, the split is roughly 50-50. Thereafter, males make up a greater proportion of leading roles than females, accounting for 80 percent of lead roles by age 40.
  • As directors typically have influence in casting decisions, the study found female directors do not cast more older women than men, though there are more roles for female actors in films directed by women than those directed by men.
  • From 1920 to 2011, males outnumbered females by a large margin, accounting for 63 percent of all leading roles and 72 percent of all credited roles.