The Economics of Gender Stereotyping

"We are experiencing a sea change with women and movies, a shift in numbers but also in consciousness. Female-driven movies, from women filmmakers and not, open weekly and are greeted as a matter of course rather than as aberrations; some dominate the box office, and a handful are enlivening the awards season. Despite continuing biases and barriers, women are now directing movies with a variety of budgets, topics and casts."[1]

Chasing the young male demographic

Media industry representatives often argue that stereotyping is driven by demographics – in particular, the desire to reach the most desirable part of the audience, males ages 18 to 34.[2] The conventional wisdom in the media industry is that while girls will consume media aimed at boys, the reverse is not true,[3] and because most media companies are reluctant to take risks[4] they follow this conventional wisdom, even when the data suggests it is incorrect.

Q-tips® Men's PackA similar truism is that gendered products are more profitable than unisex ones; while this was once limited to marketing women’s versions of unisex products – a “pink tax” that resulted in women paying, on average, seven percent more for the same products than men[5] - marketers are increasingly trying to cash in on men’s vulnerable masculinity by selling “male” versions of products such as Q-Tips, which have a corrugated-metal pattern on the box and are described as “men’s ultimate multi-tool.”

However, while both of those views pretend to be based on financial reality, the actual numbers don’t bear them out. Retailers are actually less willing to stock gender-specific products than unisex ones,[6] and gender-neutral brands are more recognizable and seen more positively by consumers than gender-specific ones.[7] Movies with female protagonists, meanwhile, earn more on average than films with male ones (the difference is actually greater for higher-budget films),[8] while a 2018 study found that female-led movies had outperformed male-led ones for the previous four years.[9] Nor is it true that movies with female leads do worse among international audiences.[10] Movies made by female directors are, on average, more profitable than those by men[11] and movies that pass the “Bechdel test” (see “”) are more profitable than those that don’t.[12]

When it comes to advertising, not only are one in three young Canadians concerned about gender inequality and gender stereotypes,[13] ads that challenge stereotypes are both more positively perceived and more likely to be watched in full rather than skipped.[14] Unfortunately, resistance from small but vocal and well-organized groups to ads that genuinely challenge gender stereotypes, such as the Gillette “The Best a Man Can Be” campaign, frequently leads advertisers to take the easier path of making ads like the Tide campaign in which a “man monologues on his duties as a dad mom while he skillfully folds children’s clothes from the laundry basket… [but] reinforces the fact that he is not in the least renouncing his masculinity… [and] gives up the chore to go to the gym next door.”[15]

Media producers will sometimes say that gendering is essential for the toys and other merchandising that, for many kids’ properties, are a larger source of revenue than the actual show or movie. Shane Black, the director of Iron Man 3, was told to reduce the role of two female characters because “the toy won’t sell as well if it’s a female... We had to change the entire script because of toy making,”[16] while Rey, the lead in the Star Wars sequel The Force Awakens, was largely left out of the film’s tie-in toys.[17] In this case, too, the actual numbers contradict the conventional wisdom. Despite Disney’s concerns that girls wouldn’t play with a “boy toy,” the bow used by Merida in 2012’s Brave became a top-seller.[18] Similarly, despite the relatively poor box-office performance of the 2016 female-led Ghostbusters, the tie-in toys sold better than expected,[19] suggesting a strong demand for female action toys. In fact, “a modern hallmark of successful cross-platform and cross-category entertainment properties is their appeal to both genders,” pointing to brands such as SpongeBob, Minions and Harry Potter and noting that gender-skewed brands such as Barbie and WWE are becoming niche interests. It’s true, however, that there is still a “pink penalty”: most of the growth of cross-gender brands has been from girls taking an interest in neutral or traditionally boy-focused brands, such as Pokémon or Marvel superheroes, while boys still don’t feel comfortable exploring girls’ brands.[20] A similar dynamic occurs in sports, where despite the fact that fans of women’s sports are on average younger (and thus presumably a more valuable audience) than fans of men’s sports,[21] the women’s sports market in Canada is “significantly underdeveloped.”[22]

While the industry’s conventional wisdom may not be based on facts, it still has an impact. Despite the better returns from films directed by women, in 2018 they made up only eight percent of directors – actually a percentage point below the number in 1998.[23] In her 2015 documentary Half of the Picture, Amy Adrion interviewed 50 female directors of successful films who were snubbed at the beginning or end of their creative processes. Despite the massive success of the Twilight movies, director Catherine Hardwicke wasn’t offered the three-motion picture deal a male director typically would have been given after a successful film.[24]

“You can apparently make an endless collection of high-priced action flops and everybody says ‘win some, lose some’ and nobody decides that They Are Poison, but it feels like every ‘surprise success’ about women is an anomaly and every failure is an abject lesson about how we really ought to just leave it all to The Rock.“[25]

A double standard is often at work when movies do poorly – while flops starring or directed by men aren’t generally seen as part of any particular pattern, when films with female directors or stars fail it’s taken as evidence that female-fronted movies can’t succeed.[26] While the poor performance of Ghostbusters didn’t hurt director Paul Feig’s career, the franchise was still “rebooted” to get rid of the all-female cast.

Digitizing media stereotypes

Digital media often reflect not just gender discrimination in society but gender stereotyping in media, as well. One reason for this is that generative algorithms, including image generators like Midjourney and Dall-E and text generators like ChatGPT, are “trained” on media – such as web pages or stock photos – and may therefore reproduce stereotypes found in them. One study, for instance, found that while 88 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are White men, giving image generators a prompt for “CEO” or “Director” resulted in an image of White men 97 percent of the time.[27] Algorithms also often discriminate based on gender, even in cases like job ads where they are forbidden by law from doing so. In fact, one study found that “Facebook’s ad delivery algorithm introduces gender skew even when [an] advertiser targets a gender-balanced audience.”[28]

At the same time, the ability to cheaply and easily distribute content through digital platforms has provided opportunities to women and woman-led companies that didn’t previously exist. These range from Wattpad, which has built a base of close to a hundred million users (as well as licensing more than 90 of those users’ stories for adaptation to TV or film) by providing a place to share content that prioritizes users’ safety,[29] to Caitlin Reilly, one of the many female comedians who have found a more direct connection to their audience on TikTok than in traditional venues such as comedy clubs and talk shows.[30]

[1] Dargis, Malona. (2023) “For the First Time Ever, I’m Optimistic About Women in the Movie World.” The New York Times.

[2] Tamaru, Vicky. What’s the “Big Idea”? San Francisco Chronicle, November 10 2009.

[3] Lemish, D. (2010). Screening gender in children’s TV: The views of producers around the world. New York and Abingdon: Routledge.

[4] Lindell, K. (2021) Disney Princesses: New Feminist Icons? CSUF News.

[5] Byron, Ellen. “Does Your Razor Need a Gender?” Wall Street Journal, February 1 2020.

[6] Jones, S. C., Knotts, T. L., & Udell, G. (2009). The Fate of Gender-Affiliated Products in Mass Merchandising. Journal of Business and Retail Management Research, 4(1).

[7] Lieven, T., & Hildebrand, C. (2016). The impact of brand gender on brand equity: Findings from a large-scale cross-cultural study in ten countries. International Marketing Review, 33(2), 178-195.

[8] Shift7. (2018) Female-led films outperform at box office for 2014-2017.

[9] Buckley, Cara. “Movies Starring Women Earn More Than Male-Led Films, Study Finds.” The New York Times, December 11 2018.

[10] Pedace, Roberto. “Why aren’t Hollywood films more diverse? The international box office might be to blame.” The Conversation, December 6 2017. Retrieved from

[11] Sun, Rebecca. “Study: Films Directed by Women Receive 63 Percent Less Distribution Than Male-Helmed Movies.” The Hollywood Reporter, June 29 2016.

[12] Hickey, Walt. “The Dollars and Cents Case Against Hollywood’s Exclusion of Women.” FiveThirtyEight, April 1 2014. Retrieved from

[13] Numerator & Ad Standards. (2022) State of Advertising Perceptions & Attitudes.

[14] Wojcicki, Susan. “Ads That Empower Women Don’t Just Break Stereotypes, They’re Also Efective.” Adweek, April 24 2016.

[15] Pando-Canteli, M. J., & Rodriguez, M. P. (2021). “Menvertising” and the Resistances to New Masculinities in Audiovisual Representations. International Journal of Communication (19328036), 15.

[16] Erbland, Kate. “Shane Black: ‘Iron Man 3’ Villain Was Going to be a Woman, but She Wouldn’t Have Sold Toys.” IndieWire, May 16 2016. Retrieved from

[17] Brown, J. A. (2018). # wheresRey: feminism, protest, and merchandising sexism in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Feminist media studies, 18(3), 335-348.

[18] Foster, Elizabeth. “You Go, Girls!” Kidscreen, May 19 2017. Retrieved from

[19] McNary, Dave. “Mattel Reports ‘Ghostbusters’ Toy Sales Have ‘Exceeded Expectations’.” Variety, July 22 2016. Retrieved from

[20] Tyree, Wynne. Study shows gender-inclusive brands score big with kids. Kidscreen, March 8 2016. Retrieved from

[21] Vivintel. (2020) Passion for the game: The women’s pro sports audience in Canada. Vividata.

[22] Canadian Women & Sport. (2023) It’s Time: A Roadmap for Accelerating Women’s Professional Sport in Canada.

[23] Lauzen, M (2019). The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 100, 250, and 500 Films of 2018. Retrieved from

[24] Omar, Y (2018) Why there are so few female directors working in Hollywood. Harper’s Bazaar. Retrieved from

[25] Holmes, Linda. “At the Movies, the Women are Gone.” NPR, June 14 2013. Retrieved from

[26] Mendelson, Scott. “The Box Office Failure of Olivia Wilde’s ‘Booksmart’ is a Sadly Predictable Tragedy.” Forbes, May 27 2019. Retrieved from

[27] Luccioni, A. S., Akiki, C., Mitchell, M., & Jernite, Y. (2023). Stable Bias: Analyzing Societal Representations in Diffusion Models. arXiv preprint arXiv:2303.11408.

[28] Imana, B., Korolova, A., & Heidemann, J. (2021, April). Auditing for discrimination in algorithms delivering job ads. In Proceedings of the Web Conference 2021 (pp. 3767-3778).

[29] Kong, S.L. (2021) “How Wattpad is establishing itself as an entertainment powerhouse by listening to young women.” The Globe and Mai.l

[30] Schulman, M. (2023) “The Funniest WASP Mom on TikTok.” The New Yorker.