The federal government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is currently investigating sex discrimination against female film and TV directors. But an informal Deadline survey has found that there are far more women directing movies than are voicing TV ads for them, and many more women are directing primetime network shows than are voicing promos for them.
Women today do voice-over commercials for a wide range of products and services, including cars, banks, credit cards, airlines, oil companies, hotels and wireless devices, but they remain virtually shut out of voicing ads and promos for one particular industry: film and television. The survey found that while most ads airing on primetime network shows are still voice-overed by men, by a factor of nearly 2-to-1, promos for those same network shows were performed exclusively by males – 233-0.
Deadline’s survey sampled more than 800 distinct primetime ads and promos over 10 weeknights in November. The results offers stark evidence of gender bias in the marketing of films and primetime TV shows — and of sex discrimination by all the major networks and film studios in the employment of female voice-over artists.
“It’s the only business where you hear, ‘Oh, we don’t hire women,’ ” said Joan Baker, author of Secrets Of Voice-Over Success and co-founder of That’s Voiceover! and the Voice Arts Award. “I hear that all the time. They’d be fired in any other business, but in voice-over, it’s an accepted practice. And they don’t say it to insult you; they are just telling you the truth.”
Last year, women directed less than 5% of major studio releases, but of the 21 ads for current or upcoming films that aired on the networks in primetime during the weeks of November 9-13 and November 23-27, every one employed male voice-over artists exclusively including three films directed by women: Angelina Jolie’s By The Sea, Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette and Jessie Nelson’s Love The Coopers.
“A lot of the old stereotypes still remain,” said famed voice-over actor Joe Cipriano, who co-chairs the advisory board of the SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s Don LaFontaine Voiceover Lab. “They still believe that a blockbuster movie has to be sold by a big, deep voice.”
During a panel discussion on bias in the voice-over business at the recent That’s Voiceover! conference in Los Angeles, Dave Fennoy — the original voice of Hulu — said, “I can count the number of women doing movie trailers on one hand, and still have fingers left over.”
Lake Bell, who co-produced, directed and starred in the 2013 film In A World… which was about a woman’s struggle to break into the voice-over business, told the LA Times that August: “I don’t think that the entire voice-over industry is dominated by men, but there are different subdivisions that are. So the movie trailer voice-over industry and faction is, without hyperbole, dominated by men. I would challenge anyone to think of the last movie trailer they watched where a female voiced it. There was one woman who did it — Melissa Disney in the ’90s did Gone In 60 Seconds — but that’s it.”
Female voice-over artists don’t fare much better on promos for the networks’ primetime lineups. A sampling of 233 of those promos found that they had all been voice-overed by men, with the vast majority being voiced by one or two men at each network.
Baker, who noted that women voice artists have made great strides in recent years – she herself does promos for Showtime – said the networks operate under the philosophy that “what isn’t broke, they don’t fix.” It’s a mind-set, she says, that’s based in part on “biased research” that purports to find that men’s voices “cut through” better to audiences than women’s.
TV commercials are the biggest source of income for members of SAG-AFTRA, surpassing earnings from both film and television. In pre-merger 2010, the last time the Screen Actors Guild released actors’ earnings data, commercials accounted for $817.9 million of SAG members’ covered earnings, compared with $588.8 million from films and $564.8 million from TV shows. And a significant portion of those commercial earnings come from voice-overs, which has been dominated by men for decades.
“It’s a man’s world,” said an agent who represents voice-over performers. Like many others in the voice-over business interviewed for this story, however, she noted that more voice-over opportunities for women have opened up in recent years. “You should have done your survey 10 years ago,” she laughed.
Deadline’s survey sampled 608 separate and distinct primetime commercials that aired on ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and the CW. Of those, male voice-over performers outnumbered their female counterparts 395 to 213, a margin of 65% to 35%. And when women do land jobs as voice-over artists, it’s often on ads traditionally aimed at female viewers: skin creams, laundry soap, shampoos, feminine products and the like.
But women also voiced commercials for many gender-neutral products and services such as the NFL Shop, Visa, Korean Air, Verizon, Ford, Toyota, Nissan, McDonald’s, Google, Starbucks, Subway, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, T. Rowe Price, Credit Karma, E-Trade and iPhone 6.
“Women are doing a lot of products that used to be exclusively men’s,” said voice-over artist Nancy Giles during a panel discussion on the Evolution of Women in Voiceover that was hosted by the SAG Foundation in April.
“I’m happy that women are doing car commercials,” said panelist Jessica Cannon, who noted that very few were voiced by women when she broke into the business 11 years ago. “I remember when I first started and we all said: ‘Wouldn’t it be so great if we could do a car commercial? Or insurance or banks?’ Any of those things where it was like, ‘Ask your husband if you can buy that.’ ”
And yet, even the SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s voice-over lab — a state-of-the-art facility that teaches the craft, free of charge, to all SAG-AFTRA members — is slow catching up to the changing times. Of its 24-member advisory board, three are women.
Commenting on how few women are hired to voice ads for movies and promos for primetime TV shows, Doug Melville, Chief Diversity Officer, North America, for the giant ad agency TBWA Worldwide, told Deadline: “I think Hollywood is still partly a walled garden. They allow those in who they feel most comfortable with, people who have aligned with them professionally and who have come up in the same generation, from the same schools, etc. It is a very like-hires-like environment, very formulaic. In the advertising industry, we consciously look to hire people who challenge us, who come from different backgrounds. We try to get the most opinions and input from the most niches and POVs we can. This is how we as advertisers stay attuned to client audiences.
“When you look at the voice-over industry,” he added, “gender awareness is now coming to the forefront. Systematic change in legacy industries typically happens one element at a time. First the focus was on the people in front of the camera, then about those behind the camera, then to the decision-makers on the executive team, and now the spotlight is being directed toward the voters on the award committees. The audiences who consume media have changed drastically, and because of that there is more scrutiny on the images and voices that represent, or fail to represent, them. There is a growing issue of cultural appropriation.
“While the wheels of progress have, and will, turn slowly, the good news is that information is the great equalizer — and that awareness, and the social channels are allowing new perspective to the masses and the niches — and encouraging change from the bottom up.”
It’s long been held that men’s voices somehow “cut through” to viewers better than women’s, but the fact that more and more car companies, financial services and high-tech industries now are turning to female voice artists to sell their products is proof that many of the adages no longer apply. But the film and TV industry, as exemplified by the near-total male domination of the ads and promos it uses to sell its movies and shows, remains the last to catch on.
“Some network has to be willing to take a chance on something that isn’t the norm, that isn’t based on biased research,” Baker said. “Hire a woman’s voice. Represent real life. Viewers will appreciate that.”
Kelly Robb contributed to this report.