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Women on top in Forbes power list – but not in the boardroom

They say that Hollywood's a man's town. But if you were to glance at the latest celebrity "power list", you could be forgiven for thinking that the exact opposite was true. For the first time in living memory, women appear to hold more sway than their male counterparts in the entertainment industry.

Oprah Winfrey, who earned an estimated $315m [£209m] last year, has just been named as the world's most influential personality by Forbes magazine, which this week published its annual "Celebrity 100" list, ranking stars by their ability to successfully make vast amounts of money and generate headlines and internet traffic.

Immediately behind her were the musicians Beyoncé Knowles, Lady Gaga and Britney Spears, at second, fourth and sixth respectively, and Sandra Bullock who, after winning an Oscar and going through a messy divorce, is suddenly the world's most talked-about actor. Completing a historically strong showing for female performers, old and young, are Madonna, Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus, at 10th, 12th and 13th in the talked-about Forbes list, which is based on computer rankings of a star's ability to generate five precious commodities: money, film and TV appearances, media coverage, web traffic, and friends or followers on social networking sites.

The news suggests that women at the very top of the celebrity tree may at last be starting to gain the levels of wealth and influence they deserve. Yet, across the wider entertainment industry, it isn't yet time for feminists to start celebrating a shiny new age of equality. Behind the scenes, the worlds of film, television, music and professional sports, which – rightly or wrongly – continue to dominate Western culture are still largely lorded over by men.

In Hollywood, not a single major studio is run by a woman. Neither is a major talent agency or record label. And research from San Diego State University's Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film has revealed that just 28 per cent of all the characters portrayed in films last year were female.

A study of the directors, producers, writers and cinematographers working in the entertainment industry last year turned up a similarly depressing statistic: just 16 per cent of people credited for working below the line on the top 250 grossing films of 2009 were women.

"The sad thing is that with Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar win, this was supposed to have been a great year for women in film," says Dr Martha Lauzen, the Centre's executive director. "But in fact, the reverse is true. Only seven percent of the directors of films released last year were female. These lists can be very misleading. Whenever people want to argue that women are now equal in the entertainment industry, they will name a few very high-profile ones who are doing well. But that in no way tells you what's going on across the industry. In fact, it papers over problems."

Bizarrely, Dr Lauzen's research shows that women, particularly in older demographics, watch more television than their male counterparts. And the Motion Picture Association of America says that they buy marginally more cinema tickets too.

"Given this, women are even more dramatically under-represented," she adds. "And while you could say the same is true about other industries, we shouldn't really be treating entertainment like just another industry. Mediums like film and television are the architects of our culture."

Even the most politically correct of Hollywood organisations is vulnerable to a feminist critique. Last week, feminists accused Pixar, the computer animation studio whose Toy Story 3 is set to be one of the summer's most lucrative films, of being "carelessly sexist".

Not one of the 10 films Pixar has released in its 16-year history has boasted a main female protagonist, according to Ms. magazine, which noted sternly that: "Kids who grow up watching sexist shows are more likely to grow up internalising stereotypical ideas of what men and women are supposed to be like."

Forbes' 100 most powerful...

1. Oprah Winfrey

2. Beyonce Knowles

3. James Cameron

4. Lady Gaga

5. Tiger Woods

6. Britney Spears

7. U2

8. Sandra Bullock

9. Johnny Depp

10. Madonna

More can be found at www.forbes.com/celebs