Geena Davis on Gender Equality and How the Media Influences the Workplace

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I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN TAUGHT that when it comes to writing, less is more.

As the BBC points out, it’s an idea that goes back at least 2,500 years, but I originally heard it from my first professional editor on my first professional job. There’s even a Netflix series about it, although the title of that is Less Is Now and it’s not about writing but more on people who have embraced a more frugal lifestyle.

I mention my “less is more” philosophy because I ignored it with my last blog post from the HR Technology Conference and Exhibition in Las Vegas when I published the transcript of technology analyst Josh Bersin’s hour-long keynote speech titled How AI Will Transform The Market Forever. It was 55 minutes of timely data and insights on a topic that’s on a lot of people’s minds right now, and I felt readers would have a better understanding of the challenges we face with AI if they could read it in its entirety.

Although I rarely get much feedback on this blog, I actually got a little on the Bersin insights, and what I got was fairly positive.

THAT LED ME TO ANOTHER keynote at the HR Tech conference, this one by Academy Award-winning actress Geena Davis. She’s been in a lot of movies from Thelma & Louise to Beetlejuice, to The Accidental Tourist and A League of Their Own.

A great, common sense lesson

In my blog post on the HR Technology Conference that was published over on, I wondered if Geena Davis’ kickoff keynote on Gender Equality: How the Modern Media Reflects and Influences the Workplace would be “woke” or political, but I noted that “it was actually just a very personal and heartfelt talk by a successful actress on her struggles to achieve success — and how the media makes success so much harder for women to achieve. At the end, Geena Davis has a great message to tell that is a common-sense lesson for everyone.”

Geena Davis in 2013

So … for the second time this week I’m going to post the full transcript of a conference keynote speech that is long but well worth your time because Geena Davis on this topic is VERY interesting

I won’t make a habit of this, but before I heard it, I didn’t think this presentation was going to add up to much. That’s not because of Geena Davis, but based more on the many conference keynotes I’ve heard from a Hollywood celebrity or someone similar who didn’t have much of a message, particularly for an audience at a technology or human resources event.

That wasn’t the case this time around. Yes, The Skeptical Guy sometimes finds he was wrong to have been so skeptical about something. I’m always happy when that happens, and in this case, Geena Davis has a great message for us all.

As always, your feedback is very much appreciated …


Gender Equality: How Media Influences the Workplace

Geena Davis:

“I feel a little self-conscious when I’m asked to speak to people because I feel like, well, maybe you have a certain idea of what I might be like in real life from roles that I’ve played or whatever, but I have to assure you that I’m the same small town geeky kid that I always was. In fact, I was just talking about that with the driver in the motorcade on the way over here.

Whenever I’m asked to speak, especially on an auspicious occasion such as this, I put a great deal of thought into thinking about why the organizers chose me. What was it specifically about me that they thought would be very helpful or enlightening to all of you? I’ve entitled today’s address, How to Become a Movie Star, and I hope this helps. First, you want to get really big parts in major motion pictures. That’s really it. Do we have time for questions?

I HAVE SPENT MOST of my life advocating for women and girls in one way or another by encouraging more women to seek political office, by encouraging girls to play sports, more girls to play sports. I’m a special envoy for women and girls to the UN in tech, and I founded my own research institute as you’ll hear about, but also in part by seeking roles that I think will resonate with women. In fact, I have only played role models.

Okay. I was in a movie called Earth Girls Are Easy. That was very early on. I think if we put aside that a long time you can take me seriously. I thought I’d start by telling you a little bit about how I got into acting like most people, maybe many of you, I announced my career plans to my parents when I was three that I wanted to be an actor in movies.

I’ll digress just one second and explain why I call myself an actor instead of actress. It’s because the dictionary definition of an actor is a person who acts. It’s not a man who acts. … Personally, I consider myself a former waiter who became an actor. Back to 3-years-old, I can’t imagine what it was I saw or how I even knew that that was a job that you could get. But my goal never wavered, and when it came time to go to college, I decided I was going to major in acting, which is a great idea, majoring in acting because it always works out.

“I had completely unshakeable faith”

I told my parents this was my plan. They were like, okay, great. Because we had no idea, like I said, from a very small town, where we knew nothing about Hollywood or show business. My Dad built our house. My Mom grew all of our food. I think they would’ve been Amish had they heard of it, but whatever the odds, I decided that’s what I was going to do, and I had completely unshakable faith that it would happen.

AS IT TURNED OUT, my very first job was in a movie called Tootsie, which was a huge hit. I had a small part. But anyway, so I’m home visiting my folks one weekend and a neighbor is over and she’s talking to my Mom and saying, “Oh my God, nobody can believe that a girl from Wareham is in a movie and so unbelievable.” Here I am. Uh-oh, we’ll talk after.

And my Mom said, “Well, she studied acting in college.” We had no idea. My very first class at Boston University, and this is just to show you, how sure I was when I was 16. My very first class is about a 100 incoming freshman and the president’s talking about the school and the program. And he says, “You know what? I have to tell you, we’ve chosen an incredibly difficult profession. In fact, probably only about 1% of you will be able to earn your living as an actor.” And I swear, I thought, oh, these poor kids. That was me. Becoming an actor, had something to do with having studied acting. Also had a little bit to do with me having been in a Victoria Secret catalog as a model, but we’re not going to get into that right now.

My very first book came out last fall called Dying of Politeness. It’s a memoir about what I call my journey to bad-assery. It’s about how the roles that I’ve played have led me from an ethically polite upbringing to someone who can actually say what they think without apologizing profusely for it in the first place. Maybe some of you can relate to that. I very merely literally died of politeness, as you can see in the book.

When I was about 8-years-old, my folks and I went out to dinner with Great Uncle Jack and Great Aunt Marion, and Great Uncle Jack was driving us home from the restaurant and he’s 99 and it’s dark out. He’s got giant bubble eyeglasses and it’s a very narrow road. And every once in a while he veers into the oncoming lane, veers back, and then does it again. Nobody says anything. My parents are completely stone faced, although I was sitting directly behind Uncle Jack. My Mom picked up and put me in between her and my Dad so that I would maybe die less (if we had) a head on collision.

The trouble with “terminal politeness”

At one point, Uncle Jack veers again, kind of straddling the yellow line, and now a car is coming and literally it’s a very narrow road and there’s nowhere for anybody to pull over. Nobody says anything. We are very close to dying. And at the last instant, Aunt Mary says, “A little to the right, Jack.” He drifts over. The other car, with people with horrifying looks on their faces, peels past us. It just shows that my parents would rather die and take their child with them than risk being impolite to somebody who’s also going to die. Yeah, that’s how I was raised. And this terminal politeness colored every aspect of my life.

WHEN EVENTUALLY IT CAME down to dating, I found it very hard. I didn’t want to express any opinions. The guy would say, “Hey, what toppings do you want on a pizza?” And I’d be, “oh, I don’t care.” Because what if he didn’t like people who liked pepperoni or something? It really hampered my lifestyle. But becoming an actor has given me the opportunity to be a far bolder person on screen than I ever was in real life. Have you heard the term fake it till you make it? I was kind of acting it until I become it. And some of this just really rubbed off on me, and I’ve been surprised along the way how different parts I’ve played have impacted my real life and helped me uncover skills that I didn’t know I had.

For example, as a very late blooming athlete, I got cast in A League of Their Own. I was supposed to play the best baseball player anyone has ever seen — the only problem being I didn’t know how to play baseball or any sport at all. Everybody has their thing in high school; that’s your thing you have to deal with. And mine was always being the tallest kid in class. … So here I am and I’m going to learn how to play baseball. And they have excellent coaches. And very soon the coaches start saying, “You have real untapped athletic ability.

Geena Davis in 1989When I was a kid, I didn’t want to do anything physical. They were begging me to play girl’s basketball. I was like, I don’t play basketball. And I said, “Just stand there.” Nobody saw the video. But now I find out that I actually am coordinated. And it took until I was 35 to find that out. But it finally made me feel like it was okay to take up space in the world, to inhabit my body because I could do things with it. That I wasn’t faking it, that I deserved to be successful when sports dramatically improved my self-image. After that film, I learned to play quite a few other sports. By the way, I did learn to play baseball pretty good, but whenever my character hit a home run, and I think I only hit home runs in the movie, I would do the closeup of the Mighty Swing, and then the prop guys had a giant sling shot and they would shoot the ball over the fence.

For other parts I had to learn horseback riding and TaeKwonDo and fencing, ice skating, pistol shooting, ice skating while pistol shooting. And this spurred me on to decide that I wanted to pick a sport and learn it in the real life way and not the movie version way.

“There are fewer fabulous parts for women”

If any of you remember hearing something while back that I had taken up archery. This is why, because I was watching the Olympics in Atlanta and there was a lot of coverage of archery because the American men’s team was winning the gold medals and I just fell in love with it. It was very dramatic and beautiful, and I thought I should be good at that. I found a coach and took it up. I was 41, and utter, utter immersion just took over my life completely. And two and a half years later I was a semi-finalist in the Olympic trials.

I HAVE TO BE CAREFUL what I get interested in because whatever it is, eventually I will want to know if I could go to the Olympics. But it turns out that I was not the only person who became interested in archery from seeing it on screen. A few years back, my archery coach called and said he’d been looking over old graphs of participation in competitive archery. And it was always men on the top line, and then boys, and then women and the girls, way, way far down. And he was shocked to see that in 2012, the lines of girls had gone and shot straight up 105% and became the top line.

What happened in 2012? The Hunger Games came out and Brave the animated movie, both in the same summer. Girls left the theater and bought a bow. It was absolutely instantaneous. And it just shows how powerful media images are. They saw it and they said, “Wait a minute, I can do that. I am going to do that.”

As an actor, I’ve been aware all along that there are fewer really fabulous parts for women. Many times they’re the girlfriend of the person doing all the interesting things or they’re not really all that integral to the plot. But I’ve been able to play some really fabulous characters like in A League of Their Own.. Also, I was the first female President of the United States on a TV show. These experiences led me to a profound interest in changing the way girls and women are depicted in the world. The film that had the most impact on my life was Thelma & Louise, which truly changed my life and cemented my passion to help empower women. It’s driven my commitment to that ever since.

Of course, first I had to get cast in the movie. Somebody sent me the script, and oh my God, I had to be in this movie. And my agent inquired, but it had already been cast. There was already a director and he had picked his Thelma and Louise. But I kept hoping and hoping, and my agent called Ridley Scott, who eventually directed it but at that time was just the producer. Once a week my agent would call Ridley Scott and say, “If anything falls apart, if anything happens, Geena’s still very interested.” Every week. And then, uh-oh, that fell apart, the director left and now they’re going to get a new director. Can Geena meet with the new director? No, he already has picked his Thelma and Louise. Time goes on and it happens again. There’s three sets of Thelma and Louise, and there was Susan Sarandon.

A big breakthrough with Thelma & Louise

Finally Ridley says, “Enough, I’m going to direct this myself.” And he said, “Yes, yes, I will meet with Geena. I mean, nobody’s been this persistent, so I’ll meet with her.” I met with him and I had a year’s worth of passion and thoughts and ideas and notes about this movie and why I cared so deeply about it and why I absolutely had to play Louise. He is listening and he finally says, “So in other words, you wouldn’t play Thelma?

It was only a brief pause before I said, “What’s so interesting Ridley is, and I’m chums with you now Ridley, is listening myself talk about why I have to play Louise. It just doesn’t sound right now that I actually think I must play Thelma.” And then I just made shit up about why. Yeah, so that’s the part I played.

HERE’S SOMETHING VERY interesting. Everybody working on the movie knew this was an incredible script. They won all the awards, Oscar everything for the script, and we knew that there were two really good roles for women, but nothing about it stood out as anything that would strike a nerve with people. And there are not a lot of women here old enough to remember years ago when that movie came out, but it caused kind of a big sensation when it did. And like I said, there was nothing, to us, that people would find particularly innovative or whatever. Maybe except that we drive off a cliff. Anyway, before that movie, if somebody recognized me wherever I was, they might say, “Hey, The Fly, Hey Beetlejuice.” This is during my nun phase.

Immediately after that movie came out, somebody recognized me for Thelma & Louise, and they wanted to talk about it. They really wanted to engage with me and tell me what it meant to them and how many times they saw it and who they saw it with and how it changed their life or whatever. “My friend and I acted out your trip.” Really? Which part? And if I ever had needed a lesson in the power of media images, I certainly had it now. And it brought home to me, in a very powerful way, how few opportunities women have to come out of a movie feeling inspired and having identified with the female characters.

For men, pretty much any movie that comes out they can live vicariously through the male character, but not always for women. Ever since then, I’ve made my acting choices with the women in the audience in mind. What are they going to think about my character? And I don’t mean that I want to play role models. I hate that term anyway, because it probably means that the character doesn’t have flaws..

In the movie, we kill a guy, drive drunk … have sex with strangers, blow up a tanker truck, and kill ourselves. We acted out your trip? I don’t think so, I don’t think you did. Now here’s the thing — I only have the luxury of being choosy about what parts I played because between us, I haven’t run out of money yet. You cannot be as picky as I am unless you can’t afford to wait for something good to come along. If you ever read that I’ve signed on to play a role — and  let’s say William Shatner is kidnapped and I’m his wife (I think that’s probably about the right Hollywood age), you’ll know I’m broke.

A lack of female characters in kids shows

CUT TO WHEN MY NOW 21-year-old daughter was a toddler. I decided that I wanted the data on one very specific thing: How many female characters were there in TV shows and movies made for the littlest kids? When she was about two I suddenly thought, “hey, wow, we can start watching preschool shows.” I picked one very carefully that would be really good and educational, whatever, and had her on my lap and we’re watching this show, and within five to seven minutes, I’m like, how many female characters are on this show? And I Googled it and it turned out there was only one female character in this whole show with lots of characters. And because of this Spidey-Sense that I had developed from playing these different roles, I was floored to see that. I mean, the Teletubbies are gender-balanced.

It occurred to me as a mother in the 21st Century that surely by now we should be showing kids that boys and girls share the sandbox equally. But I knew that in Hollywood, as I said earlier, there were fewer parts for women, but I had no idea that we were doing this from the beginning. Well, I didn’t intend to have it  take over my life regularly at first, but I called my female friends, mothers and daughters,  and said, “You know that movie that just came out. After the mother dies gruesomely, in the first five minutes, did you notice there’s only one female character in that whole movie?” And none of them had noticed. Just as an aside, can we talk about why is it the mother who always seems to die or be already dead in the movie? I don’t think that’s right. I think if we are to achieve true parity, we must kill off the fathers too. I ask you to join me.

Now I decided I’m going to just bring it up. I have meetings all the time with studio execs or directors, crew, whoever. And whenever I did, I would casually say, “Have you ever noticed how few female characters there are in movies made for kids?” And every single person, and I talked to dozens and dozens of people said, “That’s not true anymore. That’s been fixed.

A lot of times they would name a movie with one female character as proof that gender inequality was over. A lot of people said, “There’s been Belle.” The girl with Stockholm syndrome? That’s actually true. But here’s the thing — they were very sincere about it. They all talked about how seriously they take this task and how much they care about girls and I’m a Dad with daughters. At this studio, we know we’re doing right by girls.

I THOUGHT, WOW, this doesn’t make sense. I think this could be completely unconscious on their part because they’re talking about their responsibility to do right by girls. That’s when I decided I want to get the data because no one seems to be noticing this lack of female characters. And it took my life in an entirely new direction as a data geek, and I will get to the research in a minute.

But first, I had another important lesson to learn in life, this time from being cast as the first female president on a TV show a while back. And when they offered me the part, I thought, okay, my life is perfect. What is better than playing the leader of the free world? What’s more iconic than that? But it led me into a whole new realm of women advancing, because of course I researched all that, and I was aware, as we all are, that there were fewer women in Congress than there are men.

“Women are seriously under represented”

I didn’t know this. I just checked today what the situation is. And as of today, the U.S. is ranked 70th in the world as far as female representation in government. We are now between Iraq and Estonia. As Americans, we’re used to thinking of ourselves as leading the way. We should be an example for the whole world. Women are seriously under represented in our culture, and in virtually every sector of society. But for the most part, we are not aware of the full extent of the problem. What if unconscious bias goes much, much deeper than we ever have thought possible?

SOME OF YOU MAY HAVE heard a little bit about this before, but in the last century there weren’t any major orchestras that had more than about 10% women until the 1970s and the Women’s Movement. They started thinking, “we should really make a big effort to get more women in our orchestras.” They decided, let’s hold blind auditions, meaning they would close the curtain on the stage so you can’t see who’s playing. This is going to fix the problem, but they do this and still far more men get chosen than women. Then they’re like, “Wow, how is that possible? Could it possibly be that men actually are better musicians than women?”

Then somebody had the idea to have them take their shoes off. It was the sound of the women’s shoes as they came out on stage that was giving away that they were female. Unconscious bias kicked in. And without realizing why they were doing it, they didn’t pick the woman. Shoes off is 50/50 and now it’s 50/50 and most orchestras have a carpet on the stage to mask the footsteps. There’s one orchestra that doesn’t have a carpet, so the stage manager has the women take off their shoes and he walks out with them taking big, manly footsteps. This is actually good news because it shows that we can achieve absolute parity. You just have to not see us or hear us. Absolutely. That’s how deep it goes. It’s everywhere. It’s there, it’s everywhere.

BACK TO KIDS PROGRAMMING: When I realized the lack of female characters and kids programming was the unconscious bias, I decided that I was going to do something about it. I commissioned the largest study ever done on children’s television programs and movies made for kids. And the numbers pretty much backed up what I saw.

They were shocking. In both kids TV and kids movies, for every one female speaking character, there were four male speaking characters. And we also saw that when female characters did exist, they were very often narrowly stereotyped or hyper-sexualized, even in kids media. Think about that. We’ve had generation after generation see that girls are not as important as boys. Could the percentage of leadership in any given field stall out at about 20 to 25% because the vast amount of media that we consume has trained us to see that as the perfectly normal ratio by feeding our kids a seriously unbalanced world?

Getting to 50/50 parity in TV shows

From the very beginning, we were unwittingly training generation after generation to see women and girls as less valuable than men and boys and less capable. And it happened to all of us. It pretty much doesn’t matter when you grew up. You saw this imbalance. Back in my day, I grew up on a steady diet of TV shows that had very, very few female characters. My best friend Luci-Anne and I would play characters from The Rifleman in her backyard after school. And because I was taller, I would be the father Lucas and she would be my son Mark. And it never occurred to us that it was strange that we were playing male characters and didn’t want to pretend to be female characters.

There were a couple of really popular shows with female characters back when I was a kid — like I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched, two you probably have seen or heard of.

Both of those shows are interesting because the women both had superpowers. But if you think back, every episode seemed to be about the women having to sit on their abilities so as not to threaten their male love interests. This happened to several of my marriages, but things are getting better. When we launched my institute about 20 years ago, the number of popular family films that had a female lead character was only 11%. And our current data shows that in the United States we had gender parity in the lead characters in family films. It’s 50/50 now. Thank you.

WITH MOST OF THESE FINDINGS, when we looked at TV programs made for kids, the lead characters are also equal and the supporting characters are equal as well. There’s still lots of factors that we’re working on that are still there. For example, there’s a great difference in the occupational representation of males and females. When we looked at STEM careers, for example, there were far more male STEM characters than female characters, but the female characters were also much more likely to be shown having to give up their personal lives in order to pursue STEM. And the female characters in the show face sexism and discrimination because of being female. In kid’s media where it’s fiction, you make it up and it can be anything you want, yet we choose to make that particular profession look really unappealing to girls.

And of course, there’s also quite a lack of intersectional representation, characters of color, LGBTQ characters, characters with different body sizes, age, disability of course, and mixes of characters that have several of those qualities. Back when I first realized how imbalanced kids’ media was, I saw this as a very urgent problem. This is why I chose to focus on what kids see first.

Data makes all the difference

It’s just common sense. Stop creating something that is almost impossible to fix later on — show kids from the beginning where boys and girls are equal, and they do equally interesting and important things. Girls and women are, by the way, half of the population. Think how dramatically different our world could be if people were free of these biases?

What do we do with all of this data? Because I’m in the industry, I know everybody and I can go directly to the creators and share it with them in a very private, collegial type of way. Obviously I want them to keep hiring me. And they’ve been incredibly receptive and there’s never shaming; you’ll never see me naming a movie that failed to live up to some standard or anything. It’s all very private.

I don’t have to educate the public. I can go directly and change what they are making. And so when we share this research for the first time, whatever it is, in a studio or a network or guild or production company, the universal reaction has been exactly the same: They are stunned! Their jaws are on the ground. They can’t believe it. They had no idea they were leaving out that many female characters. And this is happening in an area where data makes all the difference.

THINK ABOUT THIS: If nearly every sector of our society has a big gender disparity, how long is it going to take to correct that? How much time is it going to take, no matter how hard we work, until things are equal? We can’t snap our fingers and suddenly Congress is half women. How are we going to conquer the gender bias in all of us, whether it’s unconscious or conscious?

Here’s my theory of achieving dramatic change — There’s one sector of society where the gender inequality can be fixed overnight and it’s on-screen. And the time it takes to create a new TV show or a new movie is not that long. We can change what the future looks like so that media can be the cure for the problem that it created.

A lesson from Dana Scully and The X-Files

There are woefully few female CEOs in the world, of course, as we all know. How are we going to get a lot more girls and women interested in STEM careers? Half of them can be female on television. How are we going to solve the problem of corporate boards being so unequal? It’s the same thing — show it on screen and it will happen in real life. If it happens on screen, it will happen in real life, too.

HERE’S A GREAT EXAMPLE of that, and we have lots of proof that that’s true. Fox asked us year or two back if we would study the Dana Scully character from The X-Files to see if she had any impact on women and girls wanting to go into STEM careers. Nobody knew what the outcome was going to be. And so we did a massive survey and 63% of women currently working in STEM named Dana Scully as the reason. One character from one TV show and the majority of women in that field are doing it because of Dana Scully.

Here’s what I say: if they can see it, they can be it. If they see it, it will happen.

And it’s literally true. I didn’t manage to transform the world of children’s television before my daughter stopped watching it, but I always wanted to tell her this story — Once upon a time, women and girls were thought to be less important than men and boys … and that she would turn to me incredulous and say, “Mom, you’re making that up.

Thank you very much.

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