Viola Davis Is the Exception, Not the Rule: Study Looks at 10 Years of Emmy Nominations and Gender

Viola Davis made history on Sunday when she became the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama. The moment was made even more historic by her powerful and moving acceptance speech:

“’In my mind, I see a line, and over that line I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line, but I can’t seem to get there no-how. I can’t seem to get over that line.’ That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s. Let me tell you something: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

Davis drew accolades from countless sources for speaking up about a truth that is not cited often enough in Hollywood: actresses are given short shrift in the industry, and that is doubly true for actresses of color. As the first black woman in 67 years of Emmy ceremonies to take home the Lead Actress in a Drama award, Davis is, in many ways, the exception that proves the rule. Two other black actresses — Uzo Aduba, with her second win for Orange Is the New Black, and industry veteran but first-time nominee Regina King, for "American Crime" — also took home awards, the first time black women have ever picked up so many statues.

Though this year’s Emmy ceremony offered evidence of some progress for women, particularly women of color, in primetime television, it also revealed how far we still have to go. That idea is further bolstered by a new, 10-year Emmy study from Women’s Media Center. The study, which takes a comprehensive look at women in primetime television over the last decade, drives home Davis’ point about the shameful lack of diversity in our most watched TV shows, and the underrepresentation of women in nearly every aspect of television production. 

Among the most illuminating findings of the study is that less than a quarter, or 22 percent, of primetime Emmy nominations for directing, producing, writing and editing have gone to women over the last decade. To break that down, there are 44 categories for directing, producing, writing and editing. The last 10 years have seen just 2,074 women nominated in those areas. Contrast that with 7,485 men who were recognized with nominations, making up a whopping 78 percent of nominees in those categories.

As Davis pointed out in her speech, access and opportunity make all the difference. WMC finds that the lack of primetime Emmy nominations is directly tied to the lack of representation of women in television overall. Per the report, during the 2014-'15 primetime television season, “women were 26 percent of executive producers, 38 percent of producers, 26 percent of writers, 14 percent of directors, and 21 percent of editors.”

“Clearly there is a connection between the broadcast, network, cable, and Netflix programs that hire exclusively male creators and the industry-wide gender divide,” said Julie Burton, WMC president, speaking to the study findings. “When there are few jobs for women, it is easy to see why so few women in non-acting categories are recognized for their excellence. The bottom line: if more women were hired as writers, directors, editors, producers, and especially as creators and executive producers, the talent pool for nominations would be more reflective of the overall population and audience — more than half of which are women,” Burton said.

Additional findings from the study include:


  • From 2006 to 2015, women made up 13 percent of all the nominees in six writing categories, earning 171 nominations to 1,103 for men.
  • The addition of "Inside Amy Schumer" as a nominee to the category Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series boosted the numbers.
  • In the category Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series, women make up only 22 percent of nominees over the course of 10 years, but "Mad Men" accounts for a significant portion of the women nominated.


  • From 2006 to 2015, women made up only 8 percent of all directing nominations, earning 116 nominations; men received 1,417.
  • During that period, only two women have been nominated for an award for Outstanding Directing for a Variety Series: Amy Schumer in 2015 for the episode “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” and Beth McCarthy-Miller in 2006 for an episode of "Saturday Night Live."


  • In the past decade, women made up only 28 percent — or 1,640 — of primetime Emmy nominees in the 20 categories in which producers were nominated. Men accounted for 72 percent — 4,306.
  • By far, the highest concentration of women is found in the documentary film categories: Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking and Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special.
  • From 2006 to 2015, women have usually outnumbered men, 54 percent to 46 percent, in the Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking category.


  • From 2006 to 2015, women made up 18 percent of all nominees for editing awards, earning 147 nominations versus the 659 that went to men.
  • Only two of the editing categories showed progress in the number of women: Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Drama Series and Outstanding Picture Editing for Nonfiction Programming.
  • In 2015, women represented 40 percent of the nominees for Outstanding Picture Editing for a Drama Series, boosted by the AMC show "Breaking Bad."
  • From 2006 to 2015, women received the largest percentage of editing nominations for Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Limited Series or Movie: 25 percent.

“Clearly, the number of nominees for Emmys is not representative of the impact or the accomplishments of women writers, directors, producers, editors whose overall representation in all those categories is still far from equal to their talents or the opportunities, facts that the Women’s Media Center’s research so clearly indicates,” said Pat Mitchell, chair of WMC.

The WMC report is available online here. Below is an infographic that offers a visual interpretation of the organization’s findings.


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