03/05/2014 06:00 pm ET Updated May 05, 2014

2 Great Pieces of Advice From Geena Davis

Geena Davis recently wrote an article entitled "Two Simple Steps to Make Hollywood Less Sexist." Ms. Davis is specifically speaking to Hollywood productions for the littlest kids (under age 11). The simplicity of her solutions, especially given the slow pace of change, resonated with me.

In Hollywood

You might be wondering... is Hollywood sexist when it comes to productions for little kids? The data around films and television programs for kids under the age of 11 speaks for itself. Or, you could just watch Finding Nemo again, and pay attention to the number of female fish in the sea. Yep, it's pretty much just Dory. According to a comprehensive research study released by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2013, there are several indicators that highlight the imbalance that exists between males and females in media. Two statistics that the Ms. Davis focuses on in her editorial piece are:

  1. For every one female character, there are three male characters. And, as the research further notes, the boys also have more speaking parts.
  2. 17% of characters in crowd scenes are female.

Geena Davis's two tips for fixing these identified problems are indeed simple. First, she asks writers to simply switch the names of male characters to be female names. Why not have the police officer be a woman? Or the cab driver? Or the lead character? Examine the choice for a character to be male. Second, Ms. Davis suggests that writers specifically note that the crowd is 50% male and 50% female for all crowd scenes, to ensure it is carried out in that way, whether the film is animated or with live actors. Simple, right?

The Institute's recent impact study has shown that they are making a difference in the industry, and we are slowly seeing the results of that work. I am incredibly excited to invite GDIGM's executive director, Madeline DiNonno, next week to learn more about the impact and future direction of the Institute.

At Home

As parent of a boy and a girl, I worry about both of them and how they perceive what they see. A couple of weeks ago, we watched Cars 2 for the first time, and I was reminded of how closely I still must monitor their media consumption. As much as I'd like to say my kids only watch PBS or don't have screen time at all, that's not the case! I need time to get things done, too, and I wish that I could feel comfortable knowing that what they're watching isn't going to negatively impact the way they think of girls' roles and abilities.

While we're not able to change the portrayal of women and girls in film so easily, we do have the power to implement a key "parent hack" to help when it comes to reading with our kids. Children's books still have much room for improvement when it comes to gender balance, especially with animal books. We're seeing improvements, but for those of us who still love to read old books and new ones, here are my two easy tips:

  • Lions, Tigers, and Bears... Can Be Girls, Too. Pay close attention to the animals! So often when we identify animals in stories, they are male, even when not identified as being one gender or the other. Make sure you use balanced language when referring to animal characters. Sometimes my son responds to me, "But Mom, that's not a girl cat. Girl cats have eyes that look like this [points to cat with coquettish eyelashes]." My response? There are many kinds of female cats with many kinds of eyes. To make it real, I liken the situation to his preschool class, pointing out that the girls are all different there, too.
  • Name-Swapping. Follow this awesome idea of swapping out male names for female! As this author points out, Bilbo Baggins could be a girl. And why not many other characters we see in books? If a character technically looks like he could be a girl... change the name and make he a she. When your child is old enough to read and catches on to your tricks, then you can have a deeper conversation about why you chose to swap out names.

For kids who are already interested, consider striking up a conversation with questions like:

"Isn't it silly that there is only one girl in this book? I thought so. How many girls are in your ____ class? How many girls do you think live in [insert story setting]? We have to help this author out. Maybe we should write him/her a letter explaining why we think ____ should be a girl. What do you think?"

Geena Davis often says, "If she can see it, she can be it." By paying closer attention to our kids' media consumption and making a few minor edits to the books we read, we can help our daughters and sons see the boundless possibilities for girls. That's good for all of us.

Join us live for a #ZoobeanExperts Hangout on Air with Madeline DiNonno, executive director of the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in the Media on March 12 at 9pm Eastern. RSVP here.

This was originally posted on the Zoobean blog.