Hollywood's Onscreen Workforce Is Even Less Diverse Than Real Life

Geena Davis Speech - H 2015
Jeff Lewis

Geena Davis Speech - H 2015

Geena Davis presented a selection of media-related research at Mount Saint Mary's University's Report on the Status of Women and Girls in California

The percentage of women who make up the fictional workforce in entertainment is even lower than it is in real life, Geena Davis announced Thursday morning to a capacity crowd of 1,000-plus at the release of Mount Saint Mary's University's 2015 Report on the Status of Women and Girls in California.

While 46.3 percent of the U.S. workforce is female, only 23.2 percent of employed characters depicted in domestic films is female, according to Gender Bias Without Borders, a global media study led by USC Annenberg professor Stacy L. Smith and released by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media last fall.

The institute's findings are part of Mount Saint Mary's annual compilation of gender-related data across areas including education, politics and business leadership, which university president Ann McElaney-Johnson presented at Brentwood's Skirball Cultural Center during a program that also included addresses from Los Angeles First Lady Amy Elaine Wakeland and Pulitzer-winning journalist Sheryl WuDunn.

"If [gender representation] is not being measured, then it's not being monitored or remedied," Wakeland said, while noting that for the first time in L.A. history, there is gender parity across all 42 of the city's boards and commissions. Every city board is represented by at least one woman, and 54 percent of commissioners are female.

Davis tells The Hollywood Reporter that the gender gap in media portrayals is troubling because it perpetuates unconscious bias against women.

"Everybody, male or female, has been conditioned, through the vast amount of media we consume, to see 17 percent as the normal ratio [of females in the population, as depicted in one recent survey of films]," she says, noting that studios have been responsive to implementing the two steps she recommended in THR's 2013 Women in Entertainment issue. "That's why content creators don't even notice, but there have been many, many instances where people will say on the spot, 'You just changed my movie. I have to go rewrite it, now that I've heard [your presentation].'"

Her institute, which is set up at Mount Saint Mary's, is now conducting a second global study on the impact of limited female representation on boys and girls, as well as developing software, thanks to a $1.2 million Google grant, to qualitatively analyze female screentime—how long female characters are onscreen, and how much dialogue they have.

In addition, Davis will travel to Bentonville, Ark., in May as chair and co-founder of the Bentonville Film Festival, a new competition whose goal is to champion women and diversity in film. Seventy-five selections will be in the running to receive guaranteed theatrical, TV, digital and DVD distribution from partners that include AMC and Walmart.

"The evidence is in," Davis says, "that the commercially smart decision is more diversity and more women."