Geena Davis: If Girls Can See It, They Can Be It

Editor’s Note: Earlier this week Geena Davis visited our campus in Redmond Washington to meet with Microsoft employees and speak about the lack of gender equality. It was a fascinating visit.  This story originally appeared on our Inside Track employee publication.

By Jennifer Warnick, reporter for Microsoft Inside Track

Oscar-winning actor, activist, and archer (yes, archer) Geena Davis spoke to employees on the Redmond campus Monday about a lack of gender equality. Davis said that fixing gender imbalances in the media could help change gender disparity in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics industries as well.

Geena Davis, the first woman president of the United States—on television, that is—spoke to Microsoft employees on Monday about the imbalance of gender in the media and empowering girls and young women.

Davis shared data about the representation of women in movies and television and shared her personal story as well as the reasoning for going after strong female acting roles.

"To be perfectly frank, I only have the luxury of choosing roles that I think women may like because I haven't run out of money yet. At some point, if you read that I've signed on to play Sean Connery's kidnapped wife in some movie, you will know I'm broke," Davis said, getting big laughs from the audience.

She added, deadpan: "I think that's about the right Hollywood age difference, too."

An Academy Award- and Golden Globe-winning actor, Davis is also a competitive archer (who qualified for the Olympic trials), a member of the Mensa high IQ society, and a mother of three.

As a longtime actress (her first role was in "Tootsie" in 1982), Davis has along the way noticed a lack in visibility and in quality roles for women in Hollywood.


Andrea Taylor and Geena Davis
Andrea Taylor, director of community affairs, talks with Geena Davis following actor and activist’s speech on gender equality at Microsoft on Monday.

?But it wasn't until she started watching children's entertainment with her young daughter that she decided to do something about it. In 2004, she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which commissioned the largest research project ever done on gender in film and television.

The results of that first study (which was eventually titled "Where the Girls Aren't") and studies since, she said, are astounding.

Women comprise just over 50 percent of the population in the United States, yet in family films, male characters outnumber female characters three to one (a ration that's been the same since 1946). In crowd scenes, only 17 percent of the characters are female. From 2006 to 2009, not one female character was depicted in G-rated family films in the field of medical science, as a business leader, in law, or in politics. The most common occupation of a female character in a G-rated program?

"Royalty," Davis said. "Which is a great gig, if you can get it."

Other facts: The percentage of female movie narrators is 16. Only 7 percent of directors, 13 percent of writers, and 20 percent of producers are women. This translates to one woman for every 4.8 men working behind-the-scenes in movies.

"What message are we sending to boys and girls at a very vulnerable age? We're saying that women don't take up even half the space in the world," Davis said.

Meanwhile, the United States ranks 90th in the world in terms of female representation in government. New York Times Magazine figured out that if the United States continues to add women to Congress at the rate it has, the country will achieve gender parity in 500 years.

"I say that's too slow. Like Bill and Melinda Gates, I like to think of myself as an impatient optimist," Davis said. "I think it's time for us to see a dramatic change in gender balance. Now. Not 500 years from now. Instead of sneaking up on it like we have been."

Geena Davis  

"To me, I'm exactly the same dorky kid from a small town that I always was. I was just talking about this to my driver in the motorcade on the way over," Davis deadpanned, drawing laughs from the audience.

She called on employees in the room, many of whom mentioned during the comment and question portion of the event that they have daughters, to be "agents of change."

?Davis doesn't prevent her children from watching disparate media but rather has a "running dialogue" with them while they watch it, making sure her children notice the misrepresentations.

The same goes for exposing girls to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). There are few girls or women with STEM careers represented in the media, which needs to change. It took until 2005 for television to depict the first female Commander in Chief.

"When I did that show about being president, it was just on for one season, but when it finished, there was a study done that showed people familiar with the show were 68 percent more likely to vote for a female president. They must have been like, 'Oh, that's not as weird as I thought it would be. She seems to be doing fine. She looks good behind a desk.' One of our prime goals is to not only increase the percentage of female characters, but improve what they are doing."

Davis was invited to Microsoft by Andrea Taylor, Microsoft's director of community affairs. Taylor first met Davis last fall at a cocktail hour for a United Nations symposium on women. Taylor found Davis to be very personable and grounded, and the two also had a few other common threads—they're both tall, Massachusetts-born Boston University graduates.

"And, more importantly, we're both committed to empowering women," Taylor said.

Taylor and Davis emailed about a week after the UN symposium, and Davis agreed to travel to Washington, first to visit Microsoft for a Microsoft Political Action Committee (MSPAC) event and then to speak at a community event—both focused on gender equality.

There's an important intersection between the work of Microsoft and that of Davis's institute, Taylor said. She told Davis about some of Microsoft's programs that focus on women and other underrepresented populations, including Digigirlz and Elevate America in addition to "robust" programs to help educate, retrain, empower, and engage women.

"The intersection is around community affairs and getting women involved in careers in technology, and imagery in the popular media can affect or discourage young women," Taylor said. "It all involves women thinking about these kinds of opportunities and pursuing them and the media's subtle and not-so-subtle effect on the choices they make and the kind of future women envision for themselves."

It's all related, Taylor said, whether it's Davis breaking through a media barrier to play the first female president on television or Microsoft and its partners and employees getting through to school-age girls to keep them interested in the high school math education that will later help them pursue a STEM career.

"As the motto for Geena's organization says, 'if girls can see it, they can be it,'" Taylor said. "If they've never seen it or no one in their family is involved in the field or they don't see people who are like them striving for it and achieving goals, it's very limiting. We're trying to change those images."

Davis said that's why research is so important. Facts dispel myths and misconceptions, and data is the most valuable tool to change minds, she said.


Geena Davis
In 2005, a year after she started her research institute on gender equality in the media, Geena Davis became the first woman to play the US president on television in the show "Commander in Chief."

?"In medicine, the cure often comes from the same source as the illness. As powerful as media images are, they can have an incredibly positive effect equal to the negative," Davis said. "We have an opportunity to overcome negative behaviors. If girls can see it, they can be it. But unfortunately, girls are not seeing it, and gender inequalities are deeply entrenched."

After speaking to members of MSPAC, Davis chatted with Taylor and Akhtar Badshah, senior director of community affairs, before moving on to a "girl power" event in Seattle.

What would she say, in parting, to Microsoft employees?

"You at Microsoft are developing technology that has a tremendous impact around the world, so think about how what you're doing and working on can impact equality," Davis said. "Is there something you can look at in what you're working on that could improve equality? We need to learn to look at everything with a gender lens—to be consciously sure we're not leaving women out."

Comments (2)
  1. Philippe says:

    Any chance the presentation was recorded and posted on line? audio and/or video?

    Thank you

  2. Feminist says:

    It would be wonderful to be able to see the video or audio, as philippe suggested.  Please post a link to it if you can.

Comments are closed.

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