The #MeToo movement has brought issues of sexual harassment and gender inequities to the forefront around the world. But how much of a tangible impact has it had on the experiences of women in the workplace? In this piece, the authors discuss their research that examined representation of women in Hollywood before and after the allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein in October 2017. They compared various representation metrics for films produced by production teams that had worked with Weinstein in the past with films whose teams had not worked with Weinstein, inferring that those who had been associated with Weinstein in the past would likely be more impacted by the movement. They found that production teams who had worked with Weinstein (and thus who were probably more impacted by the #MeToo movement) hired more female writers after October 2017, and those female writers were more likely to work on films with male protagonists and protagonists that defied traditional gender stereotypes. While this is a narrow dataset focused on just one industry, the authors argue based on these findings that the #MeToo movement has in fact made a significant, positive impact on the representation and support of women in the workplace.
More than three years after allegations of Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual abuse surfaced, the #MeToo movement continues to reverberate around the world. Accusations have been leveled against politicians, business leaders, and influential individuals from a variety of industries, and we’ve seen meaningful progress in both policy and action as a result.
#MeToo not only brought the issue of sexual harassment to the forefront of U.S. national discourse, but also highlighted gender disparities in representation and power, as well as entrenched gender stereotypes — all of which research has shown to be among the root causes of sexual misconduct. This reckoning has motivated many individuals and organizations to take action to address these issues and better support women in the workplace. At the same time, many remain skeptical, and some even argue that backlash against #MeToo has made male managers more reluctant to hire, work with, or mentor women.
There is no doubt some truth to all of these claims. Part of what makes it difficult to determine the true impact of #MeToo is that, like any broad social movement, it is inextricably intertwined with countless related social trends, and thus its effects are challenging to isolate. But by identifying a test setting where we can distinguish between people who are more or less likely to be affected by the movement, it becomes possible to quantify its impact more rigorously.
To do that, we conducted a series of studies looking at whether representation and job opportunities for female writers in the film industry improved in the wake of the #MeToo movement. We collected data for about 4,000 movie projects launched between January 2014 and September 2019 from the industry database Done Deal Pro, and then used publicly available IMDb data to determine whether anyone on each project’s production team was associated with Harvey Weinstein (as defined by having produced, directed, written, or acted in a film produced by Weinstein and released before October 2017, when the Weinstein allegations were released).
This distinction enabled us to identify individuals that we inferred were likely more affected by #MeToo, since #MeToo issues would likely be especially salient for producers who had been associated with Weinstein. By comparing these producers to those without known associations with Weinstein, we could control for the impact of any unrelated societal trends common to both groups, as well as any industry-wide effects of #MeToo that would have affected producers similarly regardless of whether they had an association with Weinstein.
Next, because the Weinstein-associated producers were significantly more experienced on average, we cut down our sample to about 2,000 projects such that each project with Weinstein-associated producers could be matched with a project whose producers were not associated with Weinstein, but who had similar overall levels of experience (as measured by the number of major movies they had produced, the number of times they had won or been nominated for Academy Awards, and the extent of their collaboration with major studios and large talent agencies). This ensured that we were truly comparing apples to apples, rather than potentially attributing the effects of higher levels of experience to the impact of the #MeToo movement.
Armed with this dataset, we began to compare gender representation among writers for projects with producers who had an association with Weinstein and for projects whose producers had no known associations with Weinstein. In our first study, we found that after #MeToo, Weinstein-associated producers hired 40% more female writers than before, while projects whose producers were not associated with Weinstein did not experience a significant increase. We also confirmed that this improvement was not simply the result of adding “token” female writers, as the size of the writing teams did not change.
Interestingly, our analysis suggests that this trend was mainly driven by teams with female producers, and was much less significant for all-male production teams. We can’t be certain as to the reason for this, but some possible explanations include female producers being more likely to identify with the #MeToo movement, being better able to source female talent via their social networks, being more able to credibly commit to a safe and supportive working environment that would be a draw for female talent, and being less concerned than male producers about the potential for backlash when working with women. That said, we did find that many of the male producers who had worked more extensively with Weinstein in the past did hire substantially more female writers after #MeToo. Among the all-male production teams who hadn’t worked with Weinstein or who only had limited connection with him, we did not find any decrease in the likelihood of working with female writers after #MeToo. This suggests that any potential liability concerns that may have been exacerbated by the movement were outweighed by an increased motivation to support female writers and increase gender equity.
In our next study, we looked at not just the proportion of female writers working on different project teams, but also at the types of projects these writers worked on before and after October 2017. We found that female writers working with Weinstein’s past collaborators were significantly more likely to work on stories with a male protagonist after #MeToo than before, relative to those who worked for producers without an association with Weinstein. They were also less likely to work exclusively in genres typically associated with women, such as drama or romance (which also often tend to have smaller budgets). These findings suggest that #MeToo may have helped reduce the gender stereotypes and other barriers that often keep women from working on the types of projects that are traditionally dominated by male writers (e.g., action or sci-fi films with male leads — not coincidentally, these films also tend to have the largest budgets).
In addition, as a part of this study, we also leveraged machine learning to analyze the storylines for projects that featured female protagonists. Through this analysis, we found that after #MeToo, stories developed by Weinstein-associated producers were more likely to defy traditional gender stereotypes than those developed by producers without an association with Weinstein. This further suggests that these producers were more likely to start working on projects that empowered women and broke down barriers to representation.
Of course, the long-term impact of #MeToo remains to be seen, and our data is undeniably limited in scope. Hollywood is also likely not totally representative of other industries, both in terms of its heightened level of media scrutiny and the frequency of change in team composition and projects being started. Nevertheless, our findings show that social movements such as #MeToo can in fact motivate real change — not just when it comes to bringing individual perpetrators to justice or even fixing policy to prevent future misconduct, but to actually making significant, quantifiable progress in addressing the underlying causes of these problems.