Women are not represented well in media, Geena Davis tells MBA Annual audience

"Women and girls are half the population. Imagine how our world would be if we didn't discriminate against women like this."

Academy Award-winning actress Geena Davis delivered a hard truth for women during an address on Tuesday:

Women are not represented well in media.

In fact, women are underrepresented in media at a 3-to-1 ratio, according to research by Davis’ own organization, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

Davis discussed female representation in media and answered audience questions during her hour-long keynote speech at the Mortgage Bankers Association’s mPower luncheon at its annual conference.

Davis' nonprofit organization promotes reducing gender stereotyping and increasing female representation in media made for children age 11 and younger. The organization has done research on gender bias in media and advertising, as well female representation in different genres and areas in media. 

“Women and girls are half the population. Imagine how our world would be if we didn’t discriminate against women like this,” she said, adding that there is a need to dramatically improve female representation in media for children. 

“However abysmal the numbers are in real life, it’s far worse in fiction,” Davis told the audience, adding that if media added females characters at the pace it is now, parity will be reached in 700 years.

“In media, we are teaching and training that women and girls do not take up more than 50% of the world,” Davis said.

Davis told the audience that there are fewer great parts for women and that some roles are secondary to a main character and usually stereotypical, such as the girlfriend, wife or mother. 

“I’ve been lucky to have roles that resonated with me,” Davis said.

Davis reflected that the film that had most impact on her life was "Thelma and Louise," which drove her commitment to exploring women in media. Davis spoke about how well written the screenplay and characters were and that she and others involved in the film’s production didn’t know the film would be received the way it did when it was released.

“None of us knew the nerve it would strike when it came out,” Davis told the group.

Davis explained that when she approaches a role, she asks herself, “What are the women in the audience going to think of my character?” and explained she didn’t mean the character as a role model, but as a character who speaks to women.

Davis was asked by an audience member how specific her organization’s research looks at diversity, particularly with female characters of color. Davis explained that the problem impacts women of color the most, as they are a group so small that they barely register when doing research.

Davis was also asked what the corporate world could mimic from Hollywood to change diversity and representation.

“You have to make very proactive, positive policies,” Davis explained. Giving the example of screenwriter and producer Ryan Murphy, who created the HALF Initiative, which aims to increase opportunities for women and minorities in film production.  

So, how did she get to creating a nonprofit that monitors and researches gender stereotyping in media?

When Davis’ daughter was young, she wanted to gather data on female representation among characters on children’s shows. She observed that this area of media was dominated by boys and male-driven roles.

“I didn’t intend for it to take over my life,” she told the crowd.

When exploring roles, Davis told the audience she would ask media executives, “Have you noticed how few female characters there are?” and explained to the crowd that the execs would always politely try to explain there was no gender inequality or “that they solved it” but it made her realize the creators don’t know the amount of disparity. She explained to the crowd she needed more data.

It took her whole life in a new direction. 

“The problem of unconscious gender bias is deeper than we ever imagined,” Davis said.

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