News & Views

Interview / Gender in Media Matters

by Chloe Markowicz

‘We are unwittingly training generation after generation to see men and women as unequal,’ said actress Geena Davis at a symposium on gender in media in London, earlier this month.

‘The more hours of TV a girl watches the fewer options she thinks she has, the more hours a boy watches, the more sexist he becomes,’ Davis added.

Through her organisation, the Institute on Gender in Media, the Thelma & Louise star is on a mission to change the way that women and girls are portrayed in the media. The non-profit found that the ratio of male to female characters in film is 3-1, the exact same as in was back in 1946.

Chloe Markowicz, Contagious deputy editor, speaks to Madeline Di Nonno, CEO of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, to find out why the way girls are portrayed in the media matters.

What is the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media’s goal?
We’re changing media to empower women and girls. We’re doing that with a multipronged approach: research, education and advocacy.

What inspired Geena Davis to found the organisation?
It came about from a personal experience that Geena Davis had when she was watching children’s programming with her daughter, who at the time was two. Because Geena had a heightened awareness about how difficult it is for women in Hollywood, particularly women over 40, it jumped out at her that she didn’t see a lot of female characters in these children’s TV shows and movies. The female characters that she did see were side-lined, they were hyper-sexualised, they weren’t integral to the plot. They served as eye candy mostly and they didn’t really have any aspirations.

She would speak to her friends about it and no one seemed to notice this gender disparity. She talked about it with colleagues in the industry and they didn’t seem to notice. Or they thought that because there was one female character that they had the gender issue covered.

She realised that there was a lot of unconscious bias going on. She thought, I need research. The whole thing got started when she funded one of the largest studies on gender in media ever done and realised that the data proved her observation, that there is a gender disparity. There’s a 2.5-3.5 ratio of male to female characters in media. These female characters don’t have a lot of aspirations and they’re two to four times more likely to be sexualised.

Why is the way that women and girls are portrayed in the media so important?
When we look at media consumption patterns and behaviour we know that children under the age of 11 are consuming around 7 to 10 hours of media a day. In the United States, children under 8 are consuming almost two hours of programming a day on a television set. So media is a big influencer in shaping our social and cultural behaviours and beliefs. If we’re showing a media landscape that is bereft of female presence we’re sending a message to girls and boys, that girls are just not as important.

One of your messages is ‘If she can see it, she can be it’. Can you explain more about what that means?
‘If she can see it, she can be it,’ is a phrase that Geena came up with. It really distils in very simple terms the role that media has on influencing our children. We know from other research that media is a window into the world of work. When girls and boys see people playing non-traditional roles it can really inspire them in terms of career aspirations.

How steps are you taking to try and solve gender imbalance in the media?
We’re trying to move the needle statistically on the percentage of females in the media, from a quality and quantity standpoint. We regularly measure our progress because there are many movies and TV shows that have come out where we’ve had an impact. We surveyed thousands of content creators who were familiar with our research. They had participated in an event, read our research or had seen a presentation: 68% of them said they had changed two or more projects and 41% said they had changed four or more projects. When we asked them specifically what they did, they said they added more female characters to background scenes, gave them a job, took some non-speaking female characters and gave them speaking role, hired more female crew. We need to get to that tipping point where there’s enough female presence where you don’t notice it any more.

Have you done any research on how women are portrayed in advertising?
We haven’t, only because we don’t have the financial resources to do it. However, Jean Kilbourne has historically done a lot of research around female presence in advertising. The Unilever Dove Self Esteem project has looked advertising and body image.

Do brands have a responsibility in how they portray women and girls in their advertising?
Absolutely. I think there’s a few factors to consider. Women are the lead purchaser: 85% of all purchases are made by women. When you look at selling to women and girls, it’s important for brands to be mindful of their message and how they’re depicting women. When it comes to hiring people, it’s important for brands that their media message is attractive to women and girls so that they therefore will want to work for those companies.

At Contagious, we’ve been investigated the trend of Brand Feminism, where brands are putting gender equality on the marketing agenda. What’s your opinion of brands exploring female empowerment in this way?
I think it’s really fantastic because these brands are advertising 52 weeks a year. Their reach and frequency is extremely powerful. They’re able to celebrate women and girls and try to dispel some stereotypes. I really think it helps.

Is it appropriate for all brands to explore Brand Feminism? Do they have to female focused brands?
Not at all. If you looks at brands like Gillette or Axe, I think there’s a big opportunity considering for them to also have female positive messaging, considering that women are the ones who are buying their product.

Your organisation is US-based. Does the gender disparity in media that you speak of hold true across the world?
We completed the first ever global gender and film study where we looked at the biggest theatrical territories around the world. What we found is that, for the most part, the type of gender disparity that we find in the US is very similar outside the country. We found that across the board less than a quarter of films featured a female lead or co-lead. And only 10% had a gender balanced cast. It was about a ratio of 2.4 to 1 across all of these territories. So the numbers are very similar. We also found out that, behind the scenes, out of around 1,500 filmmakers only 20% were women.

What message do you have for people who work in marketing and advertising?
We would love them to join us! All of our research and educational materials are available for free. We would love them to support our work.