Geena Davis’ Gender Bias: How Media Affects Women in Leadership

06/12/2016 12:28 am ET Updated Jun 12, 2016

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hearing the iconic actress, Geena Davis give a presentation on her foundation’s research findings on gender bias in the media. The study revealed the anemic state of women in entertainment, and how the lack of appropriate role models negatively impacts girls and then later women. It stirred up a lot of thoughts for me regarding what I’m witnessing in industries as an executive coach and headhunter, as well as how cultural perceptions beginning with the media and then carried out through education policies contribute to gender bias at work. The data and research reveals that we still have a hard time with women in leadership positions, and as a society we are not doing enough to close the gender gap beginning in the early years and in education.

Geena Davis (right) and Caroline Stokes (left)
Women in Leadership photography
Geena Davis (right) and Caroline Stokes (left)

We know media influences every aspect of our lives, and the stories we watch provide social models of behavior and expectations. The lack of women portrayed in leadership positions is alarming. Geena relayed that when the research was shared publicly many people were shocked because the numbers are far worse than anyone consciously anticipated. The research found that only 23% of global films had a plot with a female lead. The research also found that among females appearing on screen as early as 13 through 35, the roles are sexualized. The study also found a lack of female characters portrayed in leadership and professional work roles, and “comprise less than a quarter of the workforce in international films”. When it comes to portraying women in the C-Suite, only 13.9% of the sample portrayed women in such positions of power.

It’s as though we’ve been culturally sleep walking through portraying women as subordinate to their male counterparts, and the impact starts as early as 4-6 year-old boys and girls with TV and of course any games this age group are exposed to that includes gender. There is a big, black hole when it comes to positive, strong female role models for women. It’s perpetuated for a lifetime, except for a lucky few who manage to overcome the enormous obstacles placed in their path. I too often see the negative impact of poor role modeling for women as a coach and as a recruiter, and the subsequent negative impact not just on professional women but also on corporations’ ability to really maximize their talent pool and thrive. As recent dialogues suggest regarding women in tech and entertainment, we’re failing to support women in really breaking through that glass ceiling. While we continue to make strides, we have not gone far enough. From roles models and cultural beliefs to education and training women for technical roles, there is still much work to be done to close the gender gap.

And its not just television or movies, in games we see the same problem, and it is worse. Women are often sexualized passive characters or the equivalent of Mario Brothers, Princess Peach. It doesn’t do much for modeling positive role models for women. Beginning with children’s programming, there is very little available that goes beyond Princesses for women. Really, in the 21st Century, do we want to encourage young girls to aspire to ride on the coattails of their inheritances and focus on the Prince they will marry? OK, there is a lot less of this – thanks to Frozen, The Hunger Games and Brave especially. And look how popular they are? How can the games industry influence that type of strong female character behavior beyond Lara Croft?

We are losing talent due to ongoing gender bias while denying young females the opportunity to pursue their dreams as well as have appropriate role modeling to encourage success. I see it constantly at a coach and it starts when girls are young. If they don’t see strong women in leadership roles and the needed behaviors and habits mirrored for them to achieve those roles, they often fail to reach their potential.


The lack of women in leadership positions and technical roles continues to be a problem. Alex St. John’s daughter, Amelia St. John recently wrote an article in response to the outcry that erupted after an article he penned in Venture Beat describing game developers as wage slaves subsequently led to the discovery of his sexist recruitment pitch. As Amelia’s poignant article regarding the obstacles women face in tech described, “women make up 29.1 percent of the tech industry, but only 16.6 percent of technical jobs.” St. John goes on to cite that research reveals women who are seen as aggressive are also deemed less competent then their male counterparts. Aggressive behavior in men is viewed as a positive leadership trait that shows command, authority and confidence and when displayed by women, it is viewed as a sign as incompetence, and women are penalized for it. She goes on to cite that “50 percent of women working in STEM fields have chosen to leave over the past decade as a result of hostile, unwelcoming work environments.” It’s an alarming statistic.

Education and Mentorship

The problem starts in K-12 where schools do not offer Computer Science or adequate role modeling to encourage them to follow technical roles. Only 22% AP Computer Science students are girls, yet computing makes up 2/3 of the projected new STEM jobs as well as being the highest paying work in the future. This means women are deeply disadvantaged to their male peers before they’ve even made it out of high school in the US. Amelia also pointed out that there is a real lack of mentoring for the majority of women in tech. We see this across industries. Without an example of someone to shadow, it becomes very difficult to shape a path forward. The difficulty in finding mentorship continues to be an obstacle for many women and it starts in school. Programs are starting to sprout up but given how far behind we are at this point in time, it is going to require a massive effort. Mentoring is part of what we do as coaches but there is a real void of professionals with the appropriate experience for women to shadow across professions.

Women in Leadership: Clinton and Mayer

We’ve seen this pattern in the election of Hillary Clinton. Her fighter instinct has been constantly pummeled in the media. Whether you agree with her policies or not, there is a clear gender bias dating to when she was First Lady and decided to work on US healthcare rather than host teas. She broken many barriers for women as has her counterpart, Marissa Mayer. As a recent article in Harvard Business Review suggested, both of these highly accomplished trail blazing women have been held to a higher level of scrutiny than their male counterparts. Yahoo’s CEO is held to a tighter scrutiny than her predecessors. Despite winning a series of victories for the troubled tech company and accomplishing more than her predecessors, she has come under fire with criticism, and often judged harshly for her “attitude” by many. Women are expected to behave a certain way and when they don’t the backlash has no mercy.

What does this mean for recruiting and coaching?

Women at work constantly have to compensate for perceived weaknesses or stereotypes that men do not. When it comes to coaching, we have to work hard with talented women to overcome work environment related obstacles based on gender bias. We also recognize a problem with recruiting talent. All of these factors add up to companies in the end losing with talent getting wasted, and women earning less then men. There’s a real need to define the necessary steps to correct gender bias. Google stands out as a leader in this area and there are a few more, but there is still so much work to be done because it is so deeply embedded in our culture. It requires a real plan that can be practically implemented beginning with education and carried out through a professional career.

As a human capital developer, wasted talented is something we strive to avoid. From the people creating the stories and producing the media we consume, to the games we play, to our teachers, to mentoring, to ridding ourselves of our own ingrained assumptions about gender roles, there is still much work ahead. The first step is awareness that there is a problem and then we begin to take the steps to correct it. Women are still paid 80% less than men. Let that sink in a little here. Do you want your intelligent, bright, ambitious, creative daughter to be impacted by old gender biases? We need a concerted effort to change the roles we offer women to play. Gender modeling starts in the early years, and if a child “can see it, they can be it.”

Achieving goals requires a pinpoint strategy and set of tasks, a plan to get there, and as of now no such concrete plan exists to close the gender gap. It’s time to map one out across corporations and educational institutions. It’s a tough road and a big goal. Geena Davis said she’s an ‘impatient optimist’ and I think we all are too so we can move FORWARD into a gender equitable world.



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