Geena Davis: Unconscious Bias Is Hurting Women in Hollywood

Courtesy of Amy Tierney/Thrive Images

Davis talks to The Hollywood Reporter about gender equality, Hillary Clinton, Bradley Cooper and 'Frozen.'

Geena Davis is making it her mission to educate Hollywood on gender equality.

For years the actor has been very vocal about the dire need for equal gender representation in movies and has backed up her words with research from her Institute on Gender in Media. A few days after giving a keynote speech at ArcLight's Women in Entertainment event, Davis spoke with The Hollywood Reporter in a telephone interview.

Davis explains that she specifically collects data on family movies because she wants to change what children see as they are growing up and creating their first impressions of gender in society.

"We are training kids from the very beginning, from the first contact they have with pop culture, that girls don't take up half the space," says Davis, speaking about a study her institute did which discovered female characters make up only 17 percent of crowd scenes.

Davis says that people's perceptions are changed when they see women and minorities not only as half the crowd, but also in leadership positions. This extends to the real world as well. If Hillary Clinton were to win the presidency for example, that would affect how people thought of women.

"It will have a very powerful impact," if Clinton wins, says Davis, when asked about the possibility. She recalls speaking with a former president of Iceland, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, who was the first female president in Europe. "She told me she used to get letters from little boys saying 'Madam President, do you think it ever will be possible for a boy to be president?'"

Angelina Jolie Pitt recently said she doesn't usually engage in conversations about gender inequality because she doesn't want people to focus on her as a minority in the industry. "I don’t want people saying, 'Should we get a female director?' I want to hear, 'Should we get a great director for this movie?'" she told The New York Times.

When asked about comments such as Jolie's, which debate talent rather than gender, Davis brings up unconscious bias.

"Sure, it would be great to live in a world where we could just hire the best person for the job and not have to worry about that," says Davis, "But we have to keep in mind the tremendous amount of unconscious bias against women. Because if women and men were truly equally talented and equally hired based on their talent and ability, we would have half of both. Women are equally talented as far as being a director and that's not happening." (To be clear, Jolie Pitt acknowledged this as well, pointing out that she was the first female director Brad Pitt has ever worked with. "That doesn't seem right when you think about it," she said in her interview.)

"Even if people say, 'I'm just hiring the best person for the job,' and they keep hiring male directors, it's not something they are necessarily completely aware of," says Davis, adding that if people cannot defeat their biases on their own, then "we need to take measures to defeat it." She is quick to point out that women have unconscious bias against women too: "By seeing this imbalance and hypersexualization of these characters [in film] and seeing them not in leadership positions, it's sending a clear and negative message to girls as well."

The problem gets even worse when it comes to diversity in race. "It's really abysmal. As bad as it is for women, it's obviously much worse for minorities, and women of color barely register at all in the numbers," says Davis. "If you don't see yourself reflected in the culture, you get the idea that you're not as valuable."

Davis cites how orchestras in the 1970s began blind auditions, asking musicians to perform behind a screen, in order to eliminate bias against women. But it wasn't until someone had the idea to remove the musicians' shoes that women's chances of being hired were truly improved. Apparently, the musicians' shoes, visible beneath the screen, were giving away their gender. "That's the lengths they had to go to defeat the unconscious bias," says Davis.

But Davis says she feels "confident in predicting the needle will move soon on the numbers of female characters in movies." She notes that Disney is already well on its way with Tangled, Maleficent, Brave and Frozen. "It's like they are reinventing the princess story," says the actor, pointing to Frozen's "whole new take that true love's kiss is between sisters."

Davis is the co-founder and chair of the Bentonville Film Festival, which champions films with diverse casts. She says the goal is to show that films with a diverse, balanced cast are entertaining and successful.

Davis also complimented Bradley Cooper for his recent comments on helping with the gender pay gap by disclosing his own salary to co-stars. "Bradley Cooper saying he's going to tell his female co-stars what he's making is so cool," she says.

The ArcLight Women in Entertainment event is also advocating for gender equality in Hollywood. Gretchen McCourt, executive vp cinema programming for ArcLight, says she plans on continuing to champion and support female filmmakers and female-driven films with their screening series, and an event in the spring will check in on the progress women have made since their recent inaugural summit on Nov. 5. Next fall they plan to do another full-day summit on women in entertainment. 

"We need representation of race, of sexuality, of gender and they have to see themselves," says McCourt, emphasizing the importance of the films teens consume. She reiterated a lesson that was addressed at the last summit: "If you can't see it, you can't be it."