LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part I, Gone Girl and Maleficent are powered by indelible female protagonists and rank among the biggest films of last year, but women are still treated like second-class citizens when it comes to most Hollywood movies, according to a new study.

10 Feb 2015 - 1:53 PM  UPDATED 10 Feb 2015 - 5:14 PM

They're the girlfriend, the mother or the wife. Their value is determined in relation to the people they bed, marry or birth.

The gender gap is documented in new research by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University that found that females comprised a paltry 12 percent of protagonists in the top-grossing films of 2014. Over the past decade, the situation has gotten worse, not better. The latest figures represent a drop of three percentage points from 2013 and a fall of four percentage points from 2002.

The success that actresses such as Shailene Woodley and Melissa McCarthy had with films such as Divergent and Tammy in 2014 threatens to minimise this particular glass ceiling.

"There is a growing disconnect or gap between what we might perceive as being the current status of women in film and their actual status," said Dr. Martha Lauzen, the center's executive director and the study's author. "A few high-profile cases can skew our thinking."

It's not just a matter of having their names above the title. In secondary roles, females are underrepresented, comprising 29 percent of major characters and 30 percent of all speaking characters. That's the same percentages as in 2013, but does represent a two percentage point increase over 2002's figures.

Male dominance in this arena is out of touch with the demographics of the moviegoing population, given that women buy half of the tickets sold each year. What they're seeing on screen are women who are less defined than their male counterparts.

A larger percentage of male characters were shown in the workplace -- 59 percent to 41 percent -- while 85 percent of men had identifiable jobs, compared to 75 percent of women. Sixty one percent of male characters were identified only by their professional roles, whereas only 34 percent of females have that kind of designation. In contrast, 58 percent of females were identified by the roles they assume in their personal lives such as wives or mothers. That's the case for only 31 percent of male characters.

Women are also younger than men on screen; the majority are in their 20s (23 percent) and 30s (30 percent). Men over 40 accounted for 53 percent of characters whereas women that age represented 30 percent. That has implications for the number of female authority figures onscreen.

"As we grow older, we gain personal as well as professional power," said Lauzen. "When we keep them young, we keep them relatively powerless."

The center's report comes on the heels of a recent study that examined the dearth of female directors, screenwriters and other behind-the-camera talent. That examination into employment found that over the past 17 years, the number of women directing the 250 top-grossing films declined by 2 percent.

That may explain, at least in part, the problems with the way women are presented onscreen. In films with at least one female director or writer, women comprised 37 percent of all speaking characters, but in films written and directed by men, they represented 28 percent of speaking characters. Moreover, 39 percent of protagonists in films from female writers and directors were women, whereas women were 4 percent of the lead characters in films from male filmmakers.

"People tend to create what they know and having lived their lives as females, women tend to be drawn to female characters," said Lauzen. "We need to have greater diversity behind the scenes if this is going to change."

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