Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Renee Farris headshot

Geena Davis: Hollywood Could Create Gender Equality Tomorrow

By Renee Farris

Only in Hollywood would a 37-year-old woman be considered too old to be the love interest of a 55-year-old man. Hollywood often treats men better than women and the impact of this double-standard may be far wider than previously supposed. However, part of the cure may also be easier than anticipated.

“The more hours of TV a girl watches, the fewer options she thinks she has in life,” said Geena Davis, an Academy Award-winning actress and founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media. “And the more hours [of TV] a boy watches, the more sexist his views become. So, clearly there’s a very negative message coming through for kids.”

Davis shared her experience at an event in Hollywood created by PwC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The event was part of the HeForShe campaign developed by the United Nations to let men know, in the words of Emma Watson, that “gender equality is your issue, too.”


Girls and boys are influenced by what they watch and thanks to media, gender disparity is being taught to children at an early age. Davis says we’re unintentionally creating a problem that we'll have to solve later.

One study shows that for every one female speaking character in family-rated films, there are nearly three male speaking characters. Also, women are rarely the main character. Instead, they’re often supporting roles as the girlfriend, mother or wife, while the man takes the spotlight.

Furthermore, “When female characters are in children’s movies, the vast majority are often highly stereotyped or hypersexualized or both," Davis said. "Female characters in G-rated animated movies wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as the female characters in R-rated movies. In animated films, because you can draw the characters any way you want, they don’t have to be able to exist in real life." Often the waists of female characters are so tiny that you have to wonder, "Could a spinal column even fit in there?"

When it comes to careers, female characters don't fair any better. In family-rated films, 81 percent of the jobs depicted were held by men. The aspirations of female characters, on the other hand, were to find romance. One of the most common occupations for women is royalty. Being a princess “is a nice gig but hard to land in real life,” Davis said. Stats like these make you wonder whether these films are really “family friendly.”

The University of Denver studied the 10 most important work sectors (business, law, politics, etc.) and discovered that women fill only 20 percent of those jobs. Interestingly, Davis said there is one category that was historically dominated by men but recently saw a drove of females enter the field: forensic science. The reason the number of women entering the field skyrocketed may be because of shows like "CSI" and "Bones" that portray women as forensic scientists. Women saw the actors on TV and said, “Wow, that’s cool. I could be that!”

In order to devlop balanced characters, Davis advises creators to first, "Go through the projects you're already working on and change a bunch of the characters' first names to women's names. With one stroke you've created some colorful un-stereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they've had a gender switch. What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman? What if the taxi driver or the scheming politician is a woman?"

"And there you have it. You have just quickly and easily boosted the female presence in your project without changing a line of dialogue."

A change like this would encourage women's career aspirations. “If they see it, they can be it," Davis wisely stated. Let’s show girls what they can be, and let’s show boys what girls can be. There’s one way those sectors could achieve equality overnight … on screen. “In the time it takes to write a TV show or a movie, we can change what the future looks like,” Davis said.

Sure there are very few female CEOs. But in film, half of the CEOs could be women. Females are seriously underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, but there can be droves of them on screen. Hollywood has the magical power of creating the future. “Media itself is the cure for the problem it’s creating.”

However, Hollywood is doing the opposite of encouraging women to enter those important career fields. Right now, it portrays far less than 20 percent of women in those critical fields. It’s actually under-representing the advancement of women.

As Variety reports, part of the problem is the low number of women hired to create films. The more women there are creating films, the more roles those women create for female actors: “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," wrote film and media reporter Brent Lang. "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.”

One film director, Catherine Hardwicke, stated that the problem would be solved “if every single executive, financier, distributor, producer takes this pledge — for every man that I hire, I’m going to hire a woman. For every male film I back, I’m going to back one by a woman.” That strategy deserves a round of applause.

A hiring plan like that wouldn’t just benefit women, it would improve the entire company. Michael Fenlon, PwC’s global talent leader and the event host, said CEOs are reporting to PwC that when they create a diversity strategy their companies have an increased ability to connect with diverse customers and their innovation improves. When teams are diverse, better decisions are made and communication is clearer. “There are better outcomes, better business performance,” Fenlon said.

Geena Davis attempts to tackle the inequality by going directly to film creators and -- in a direct, private and collegial way -- talking to them about it. “The universal reaction across every guild, studio and network is exactly the same. Their jaws are on the ground. They are stunned. They had no idea they were leaving out that many female characters,” Davis said. She said this approach has seen results. Everyone who saw her presentation was surveyed, and 68 percent of film creators said it had impacted two or more of their projects; 41 percent said it changed four or more of their projects. Mic drop.

Being oblivious to the lack of women in leading roles is a blind spot. The first step to getting rid of blind spots is to become aware, said Martha Ruiz, the co-leader of PwC’s Oscar balloting team. If you don’t educate yourself on the topic, then you’re unlikely to become aware of the inequality around you. The more knowledge you have on the topic, the more aware you will become.

Ruiz said that you should make sure to listen to every person in a meeting and also voice what you feel and think. That way you don’t overlook anyone and they don’t overlook you. Also, if you’re just part of the boys club and don’t have female coworker friends, diversify your network. Include women and listen to what they have to say. Sheryl Sandberg would approve.

If people made those tips habits, gender equality would probably happen a lot faster. Davis said that, at the rate Hollywood is going now, we’ll achieve gender equality in a mere … 700 years. That’s appalling and unacceptable. We need more wonderful movies like "Frozen," "Maleficent" and "The Hunger Games" and heroes like Jessica Jones, Rey and Imperator Furiosa. We need them now.

This Sunday, PwC will host a nontraditional red carpet event to celebrate the Oscars. The company won’t ask shallow questions about what anyone is wearing, instead it will ask change-makers about their purpose: "What drives you? What inspires you? What are you doing to make the world a better place?” Hopefully, at least one man will say: “Women are more than their dresses; they’re half the population. Women deserve half the screen time, half of all CEO jobs and half of all political offices.”

If every man and woman acted on that sentiment, the world would change overnight instead of in 700 years. Davis said someday she hopes to be able to tell her daughter, “Once upon a time, women and girls were thought to be less important to us than men and boys” and have her daughter look up her incredulously and ask, “Mom, are you making this up?”


Image credit: ITU Pictures, Flickr

Renee Farris headshot

Renee is a social impact strategist who works with companies to help them focus on key social and environmental opportunities. She loves connecting with people so feel free to contact her at renee.a.farris@gmail.com.

Read more stories by Renee Farris