Gender bias can be fixed today - on screen, at least

Dakota Johnson (left) and Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades Of Grey.

What do we learn about women and girls when we turn on the TV or go to the movies? Around the world, female characters in films and TV take far less space than male characters. They do less interesting things. They are judged by their appearance.

We all know that women and girls make up slightly more than half of the human population. But you would not know this from watching films and TV, where there are roughly three male characters for every one female.

Less than a quarter of the on-screen global workforce is female - much lower than in the real world. Women are far less likely to be judges, doctors or in any other professional or leadership position, and women and girls are twice as likely as men and boys to appear in sexualised attire or nude.

These very enlightening and disturbingly bleak findings were part of the first international study on the portrayal of women in films that my institute on gender and media commissioned from the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, and presented last year with the support of UN Women and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Our data is echoed by research on other types of media. The Global Media Monitoring Project found that only a quarter of the people heard or read about in print, radio and television news were women. Almost half of the stories uphold gender stereotypes.

At the Fourth World Conference On Women in Beijing twenty years ago, the governments of the world committed to media making a far greater contribution to women's empowerment, recognising that films, TV, newspapers and now online platforms shape the ways we think - and act.


Yet, despite this commitment, we are still far from a balanced representation or portrayal in the media. In fact, our research shows that the ratio of male to female characters in film has been exactly the same since 1946.

My colleagues in film and TV used to think that the problem of gender equity had been fixed. But there was no data showing them the real picture. When I brought them the research I had commissioned - covering a 20-year span - they were absolutely stunned to learn how bereft of female presence the fictitious worlds they were creating were.

I have stressed how important it is for future generations to have more female characters. We know that girls feel less empowered the more TV they watch, while boys' views become more sexist. There are important ethical questions concerning stereotypes or hypersexual images to young children. No one thinks it is a positive development that - as one recent study found - girls as young as six are seeing themselves through the male gaze.

There is also an economic argument - research shows that films with more women and girls make more money, and are less likely to fail.


Maybe instead of developing unconscious gender biases and having to fix them, we can start from the beginning, as the conference recognised, by not perpetuating them at all.

To achieve gender equality, we have to work on many issues - laws, education, representation in government - the list is long. But, the media needs to be a particular priority because it has such an enormous impact on the ways that women, men, boys and girls think about their roles and their value to society. We cannot wait even one more year for progress. We know the problem, and we have the evidence confirming it.

Think about this: In all sectors of society that still have a huge gender disparity, how long will it take to correct, to reach parity? We cannot snap our fingers and, suddenly, half of Congress comprises women. But there is one category where the under-representation of women can be fixed tomorrow: on screen.

In the time it takes to create a TV show or to make a movie, we can change what the future looks like. In other words, we do not have to wait for society to turn things around, we can create the future now, through what people see.

Yes, there are woefully few women chief executives in the world, but lots of them can be women on screen. How long will it take to fix the problem of corporate boards being so unequal? Well, they can be half women tomorrow, in films and on TV.

Here is a simple solution. Cast more women in roles written for men. The time is now for the media to make the future - where we have done away with gender bias - a reality today, on screen.

The writer is an Academy and Golden Globe Award-winning actress and founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.