Saturday, May 5, Downtown Los Angeles, CA
“Like Bill and Melinda Gates, I like to consider myself an impatient optimist,” Geena Davis told all of us gathered at the closing of the Women’s Funding Network Economics & Peace Summit in Los Angeles last weekend. Looking out at a room full of women who represent women’s funds, organizations and non-profits from around the world, the actor and activist continued. “I imagine all of you can think of yourselves that way. The time for change is now. And the great thing is, that we have incredible agents of change, filling this room. All of us, all of us are powerful agents of change. And we embrace what Dr. Martin Luther King called the fierce urgency of now.”
“This conference is World Pulse in person,” Tuti Scott, a representative from Women Win, commented at the breakfast table. And indeed, it was, a community of like-minded ladies gathered in person rather than online, talking about gender equality and women’s lives. Via PulseWire, we offer online support, shared experiences and connections. In person we offer support, connections and to pour a second cup of coffee for a new friend.
The conference ended Saturday with powerful stories, speeches and calls to action from a panel of women representing Latin America, North America and the Middle East, and a closing speech by Geena Davis on the power and role of media in gender equality. Funny, self-deprecating, smart, and tall, Geena took the stage to talk about her life as an actor, because really, we’re all still a little star-struck when it comes to the truly famous and talented. After hearing her talk about her passion for women’s rights and empowering girls, I was more than star-struck, I was inspired.
Geena is a soundbite machine: informed, intelligent and funny, I was furiously scribbling to take down everything she said. She talked about learning to love her body for what it can “do” versus being an object to be admired, after she trained to play Dottie Hinson in A League of Their Own. Not one to idly stand by, she took that new-found sense of self and strength and worked to instill it in young girls, encouraging them to play sports through her work with Title Nine and Women Win. She talked about the tenacity that landed her the role in Thelma & Louise, after a year of casting different actors and directors. “My agent called Ridley Scott’s office (he was the producer) every week. So now, Ridley decided he’s going to be the director, and said, ‘Okay, I’ll meet Geena. Fine.’
“So I go to meet with him. And I have a year’s worth of built-up passion about this movie, pages and pages of notes about why I absolutely had to be in this movie, playing – Louise. And, I was going on for about 45 minutes, and he says, ‘So in other words, you wouldn’t play Thelma?’ And there was a few seconds pause, and I said, ‘You know what’s really interesting? As I’ve been talking?” (Geena pauses for dramatic effect, as all the ladies in the room laugh.) “‘I’m hearing myself. And it doesn’t sound right to me. And I’m thinking, I should play – Thelma.’ So then I made up reasons why I had to be Thelma for at least 20 minutes.”
“When I finally got cast in the movie, evidently Ridley said, ‘Anybody with that kind of tenacity is probably going to do a good job.’ And tenacity, sometimes to a ridiculous degree, has been an indispensable element in championing women and girls. And I know all of you share this kind of commitment and passion, in spades.”
Geena continued her career as an activist for gender equality by founding the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. When she started watching G-rated videos with her two-year old daughter, she was immediately aware of a huge gender imbalance and a great deal of stereotyping in what we’re showing very little children. “So it occurred to me, as a mother, in the 21st century, we should be showing boys and girls sharing the sandbox equally. And I wanted to talk to the creators of kids’ media about it, but realized I needed the data to have impact, and not just bring my observations. So this took my life in an entirely new direction, as a data-head. I have learned first-hand the power of research. And the fact that research, data, facts, dispel myths and rumors.”
Some of those facts are frightening, and can serve as a wake-up call / call to take action, which many of you reading this are already doing. Geena echoed Tiffany Dufu, one of the panelists from the morning, who is the president of The White House Project, which trains, equips, and mentors young women aged 21 – 35, to be leaders in the political and business realms of the U.S.
The conference was a global gathering, but, Tiffany noted, “When we think about women globally, the U.S. can be overlooked. Yet the unemployment rate for women aged 18 – 29 is currently 40%. And the U.S. ranks 93rd in terms of political leadership.” “Quick!” Geena said, “Name 90 countries!”
Tiffany’s parents are an example of the American dream. Her dad grew up in Watts, one of thirteen children, and left that community in the ‘70s. He went to college on the GI bill, and continued his education through a PhD in Theology. When Tiffany asked him what he dreamed and hoped for her life before she was born, he told her he was embarrassed by the cap, the ceiling of his dream. “I wanted you to graduate high school and not get pregnant,” he told her. “The woman you’ve become, I didn’t know she existed.”
“I’m a product of that American dream,” Tiffany told us, “but I’m concerned that potential is disappearing.” She talked about the current war on women, the economic divide, and what that economic inequality does for self-sufficiency. If you have no means, the ability to escape domestic violence or the hope to educate your children, the American dream is in jeopardy. Our economic inequality undermines the fabric of our democracy and political equality.
Tiffany is countering those grim statistics at The White House Project. The biggest crisis women face, Tiffany said, is a crisis of leadership. Through the organization, they are implementing strategies to shift the face of power from the current small group of people making decisions for all. It’s time for women to take leadership.
Geena agrees. “A while back, the New York Times Magazine figured out that if women are added to Congress at the rate they have been, we will achieve parity in 500 years. I say that’s too slow. (The crowds laughs, then breaks into applause.) “I say that we vow, right here, at the Women’s Funding Network summit – to cut that in half!”
Though we need the comedic breaks to find levity in these grim statistics, she continued, “The fact is that women are seriously under-represented across all sectors of society. For the most part, we’re not aware of the full extent. About two years ago, the White House Project released a benchmark report where they looked at 10 sectors of society, like academia, business, law, politics, media, sports, etc., to find the percentage of women in positions of authority. And the average, across the board, of all these important sectors of society, was 18%. With just little variations. How is that possible? Across all sectors of society, everything is stalled out at about 18%? But that number, is all around us, if you look for it. For example, the number of women in congress is 16%. 17% of movie narrators are women, and that’s also the percentage of women in the animator’s guild. My body fat is 17%. It’s strange, how often that comes up.”
“So why did the percentage of women in leadership stagnate at about 17 or 18 percent? Here’s another figure, the percentage of women in crowd scenes, in movies, is 17%. So could it be, that, if all the media that we are consuming, the entertainment media, has this huge imbalance, couldn’t it be, that that looks normal to us. That we cease to see it, we don’t recognize it, it looks normal. So that when there’s one or two women on a board, we have a couple of tenured professors, we have a couple female law partners, they feel done. It’s normal to us. We’re not seeing images of women and men sharing the sandbox equally. We’re not walking into situations and saying, hey this body of people is not half women, it looks weird. It doesn’t look weird, because that isn’t what we’ve ever been exposed to.”
Tiffany Dufu and Geena Davis both offered the same solution to the problem: Add women.
How do we do this? Recruit women, Tiffany told us. When women run for office, they win, despite an imbalance in campaign funds. But not enough women run for office. “If you know a woman who would be a great leader, put a bug in her ear,” she said. “And have two others do the same. It takes women about three times to consider it seriously.”
“Put it in the script,” Geena told us. Though it was a specific reference to the fact that quite often filmmakers aren’t aware of the status quo, and need to be told, in writing, how to set a scene. “A crowd gathers, 50 percent of whom are female.” Seems obvious, no? But it isn’t. “Put it in the script” can be a metaphor for all of us, whether we’re in media or education, agriculture or the arts. Remind people that women hold up Half the Sky, as Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn did with their book and subsequent multi-media movement by that title.
“In medicine,” Geena said, “very often the cure comes from the same source as the disease, right? So the good news is, as powerful as media is, it can have a positive impact, it can actually create opportunities to overcome social and cultural barriers. For example, we know that if girls watch female characters in un-stereotyped activities, they are more likely to pursue non-traditional vocations. In other words, if they see it, they can be it.”
“The time for change is now. And the great thing is, that we have incredible agents of change, filling this room. All of us, all of us are powerful agents of change. And we embrace what Dr. Martin Luther King called the 'fierce urgency of now.' We cannot wait to see if real gender equality happens in the natural course of time because all the evidence shows us that it will not. The lives of too many girls are at stake, as the Nobel Prize winning economist Professor Amartya Sen tells us, at least two million girls die worldwide, every year, because of inequality and neglect. Girls are disappearing, not just as fictional characters, but in the cold light of day.”
“What we need, across all sectors of society, is to add women. Boys and girls need to see an abundance of female characters doing interesting and important things and in leadership positions in the media they consume. And we need more women behind the cameras. If there’s a woman producer, writer, director, the number of female characters on-screen goes up. We need more women in the realms of business, academia, law, the military. From the people reporting the news to the people making the news, we need to add women. And to the ranks of policy makers, corporate boards, justices, presidents and prime ministers, we need to add women, include women, encourage women, vote for women, and hire women.”
To quote Tiffany’s wise father, “If you want something you’ve never had before, you’re going to have to do something you’ve never done before.”
And, as Women’s Network Funding President and CEO Michele Ozumba reminded us:
"Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives." ~ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I’m grateful for this beloved community created on PulseWire! How will you take action and add women to the script of your life, your community?