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Geena Davis On Changing The World Through Adverts

Geena Davis On Changing The World Through Adverts

The Hollywood actress & gender equality champion opens up for JWT's Togetherness guest issue.

Geena Davis is one of the world’s most powerful voices in the fight for gender equality – whether on screen, behind the camera or through the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. J. Walter Thompson has been working with her Institute since 2015 to change the conversation around women on screen and in culture, through research, original content creation and awareness campaigns.

For JWT's special issue on Togetherness, we asked Geena how we can all change the world, one ad at a time.

Advertising can, in theory, move at the speed of culture. Do you think that gives advertisers a greater responsibility when it comes to the messages they put out? 

I would say, rather, it gives them a greater opportunity. By changing the narrative, we can dramatically change the way the world values women and how women see themselves. Many companies are putting out wonderfully female positive campaigns; look at how wildly impactful P&G’s #LikeAGirl was! Obviously, the purpose of advertising is to sell products, but I think advertisers should take on the responsibility of removing the very negative message in so much of advertising today: that women are less important and less valuable than men, and therefore should be sexualized, narrowly stereotyped, and seen and heard less than men are.



What advertising would you love to see made? 

I would like to see more women! Our latest research, conducted in partnership with J. Walter Thompson, shows that men appear in ads twice as often as women, are on-screen four times as long and speak seven times as much as women.

Putting aside the message that sends – how does this make sense when we know how women dominate in purchasing power? In my opinion this is simply evidence of unconscious bias at work, not an evil plot, and my expectation is that the research by itself will create change simply by highlighting the tremendous gender imbalance in advertising. In fact, when the results of this study were revealed at the Cannes Lions International Festival recently, several major companies vowed to change their approach to their advertising on the spot.

"Men get about four times as much screen time as women and speak seven times more." 

What on-screen roles are we not seeing women appearing in? 

Well, I could answer that by saying “everything.” When I first noticed the problem with media made for kids, what stood out most was how profoundly few female characters there were. So, quantity is an enormous problem. And then of course there’s the quality aspect: we’re not seeing enough women doing interesting things, being leaders, CEOs, scientists.
The research I just mentioned also shows that 85% of jobs in ads are held by men - even though as we know women are 50% of the workforce in the US.



What can people who want to make a difference do? 

My favourite advice is to show me the scripts! With a few pen strokes I can fix them right up! (And I’m not kidding about that, by the way, I do consulting.) My message has always been that creating gender balance can be easy and fun. If the ad is already written, no problem: just look at it and see what characters can have a gender swap.

It’s amazing how impactful switching male characters to female can be, because with one stroke you are not only creating more gender balance in your project, but also the character is probably more interesting than before because it won’t be stereotypical. However, because unconscious gender bias is so insidious, this issue has to be approached very deliberately and, well, consciously! Very important: get women on the creative team. You can’t simply assume something is pro-women because it seems like it to you. What are the female characters doing? Wearing? How long are they on-screen and how much do they speak? You can always have my Institute analyse your ads; we’ll tell you.

"85% of women said that when it comes to representing them, the advertising world needs to catch up with the real world."

How would you encourage more women into filmmaking/acting? 

First of all I don’t encourage anyone to go into acting, haha. You have to be a bit crazy to pursue such a difficult profession, and my advice is always, “if you can picture yourself doing anything else, do that”. As far as encouraging women to pursue filmmaking, I don’t need to: fully half of the students in film schools are now women. They are equally talented and equally driven – but unconscious bias (and, unfortunately, in this case, conscious bias) prevents them from being hired at anywhere near 50%. Women only directed 7% of the top 100 films of 2016, a thoroughly shameful statistic.

How does the situation on-screen compare to behind the camera when it comes to equal gender representation?  

The situation behind the camera is even worse than in front – which is important for two reasons. One, having a woman director, writer or producer on a film improves on-screen portrayals and raises the percentage of female characters by as much as 10%. Secondly, research done at Yale shows that by six years of age, girls already understand that they are to be seen and judged through the “male gaze,” and have learned to self-sexualize. Society needs to experience stories from a female perspective, too, and value that. The same goes for diverse voices.



In a world where we’re constantly talking about innovation, can gender equality be seen as such, in the sense that it’s capable of transforming societies and economies? 

I believe gender equality is one of the most important issues we can address in the world today – it impacts every sector of society. Gender-balanced and diverse groups make better decisions, companies with more women on their boards make more money; the more gender equality a country has, the higher the GDP.

As you mentioned above, the media can move at the speed of culture. We can immediately start showing a more gender-balanced world, and because of the enormous power media images have on shaping cultural norms, we can create the future through what people see. I would say advertising and television are natural partners to create change. Advertising can easily change gender equality behind the scenes as advertisers can mandate that their creative teams are gender balanced and diverse. Advertisers can also influence TV programming and where they place their spots and what shows they will support.

"25% of ads feature men only, while only 5% of ads feature women only."

What’s the most stereotypical question you get asked? 

“Things are better for women in Hollywood now, right?” I’ve been asked that question countless times during the past quarter century, ever since Thelma & Louise came out. Back then I didn’t know anything about the numbers, so I would say, “Sure seems like it!” Five to ten years after T & L and A League of Their Own came out – and the predicted increase in movies about women didn’t happen – I would answer, “Well, I’m getting great parts, but I’m not really sure...” Turns out the momentum never happened, no matter how many hit movies starring women came out in the last two decades.

I’m just happy that now I have the data, so that when I’m asked if things have gotten better for women in the industry, I know the answer: no. (The percentage of women directors actually went down in 2016, from an already abysmal 9%.) However, based on the reactions I get from content creators through the work we do at my Institute, I am very confident in predicting that we will see the needle move dramatically within the next 5-10 years – on-screen, at least. 


In summer 2017, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and J. Walter Thompson unveiled groundbreaking research on gender representation in advertising. Examining ten years of Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity winners and shortlists, it aims to raise awareness of explicit and implicit gender bias in advertising, and its powerful ripple effects on the world.

Creative connections

  • Agency JWT London, JWT New York
  • Interview Claire Charruau & Noel Bussey
  • Design Olivia Jones
  • Photographs Izzy Levine
  • Retoucher Robrt Podolski

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