When Geena Davis was three years old, she knew she wanted to be an actor. What she didn’t know was how few meaningful roles actually existed for women on screen.

So when she came across the script for the 1991 film Thelma and Louise, which featured not one, but two strong, relatable women, she knew she wanted to be a part of it.

Her portrayal of Thelma was met with extreme reactions: women still tell her they loved seeing such defined women on screen. The enthusiasm of the reactions were telling.

Davis reflects, “All of this brought home to me in a powerful way how few opportunities we give women to feel inspired by the female characters on the screen. Ever since then, I made my acting choices with that in mind: what would the women in the audience think of my character?”

This internal dialogue lead Davis towards off-screen action.

The Research

To help bring attention – and remedy – the lack of women meaningfully represented on-screen, in 2004, Davis founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, with the mission to research and consequently improve gender representation. In 2015, she co-founded the Bentonville Film Festival, which promotes underrepresented voices in the entertainment industry.

Davis uses her voice to share her message with companies and industry leaders whom she believes can be part of the solution. In celebration of 2018 International Women’s Day, Davis turned to Coca-Cola.

Geena Davis
Davis joins Coca-Cola leaders on stage to address company associates.

As part of Coca-Cola’s global celebration of International Women’s Day, Davis spoke at a gathering of Coca-Cola associates in the Atlanta, Georgia headquarters. There, she shared her Institute’s findings that though society has not reached gender parity in many fields, the gender divide of those fields is even more drastic in cinematic representations.  

“It’s far worse on screen ­– in fiction, where you can make it up,” Davis says, incredulously. “We are making it worse than reality. We need to see women in our fiction.”

Though off-screen, globally men outnumber women 5:1 as elected officials, in film, male characters with such jobs outnumber women 10:1. On-screen, men outnumber women in the legal sphere 13:1 and in the computer science/engineering fields 8:1. Furthermore, 77.5% of film characters who have jobs are male.

With children consuming up to seven hours of media a day, such limited representation has a profound impact on the potential they can envision for women and girls.

The Solution

Geena Davis

Davis believes if a girl can see it on the screen, she can be it. And the numbers back her up.

An athlete herself, Davis considered women’s growing involvement in archery as evidence of this. Between 2013 and 2014, a year after several films came out featuring female archers as protagonists, women’s participation in archery rose 105%. Seven in ten of the girls sampled said that the fictional female archers influenced their decision to join the sport.

Davis, then, believes that on-screen gender parity will result in significant social change off it.

“Why are we creating a problem that we all have to try to solve later on?” she asks. “Think of how dramatically different our world would be if kids grew up free of these unconscious biases that we train them to have.”

When Davis shares her findings with those in the film industry, many are stunned. Newly charged with this knowledge, 68% of those in the industry exposed to these findings said it impacted their approach on two or more projects; 41% said it had change four or more of their projects.

Davis’ Film Festival also provides an important outlet for filmmakers who represent women and diverse peoples with intention. The festival is unique in that, through the support of Coca-Cola, it guarantees film distribution to the winners, meaning greater audience access to media that encourages.

As Davis says, “We can create the future now through what we show on screen. We can show it and then it will happen in real life. Life will imitate art.”

Coca-Cola in its own right is working to support women off-screen.

An important step in that direction is Coca-Cola’s Women’s Leadership Council, an advisory organization designed to help the company meet the global leadership demands of a rapidly changing marketplace by increasing the focus on the development and movement of women into leadership roles.

One of its initiatives, 5by20, reflects the company’s commitment to economically empower 5 million women entrepreneurs by 2020 by teaching business basics, providing access to credit and building networks to help their businesses grow. As of the end of 2017, this program has reached 2.4 million women.

With these initiatives in mind, addressing the Coca-Cola associates before her, Davis concludes, “All of you – all of us – are agents of change. All of us can become aware of our biases and work to overcome them.”