The Fempire Strikes Back

The Invisible Force Working Against Female Professionals

By Audrey Cavenecia for Maria Shriver

Over a decade ago I watched a documentary by Rosanna Arquette entitled, “Searching for Debra Winger.” Sobbing as the credits scrolled, I was clearly reacting to the universal struggle of the conscious suppression of women in media. In the film, Arquette informally interviews actresses (Jane Fonda, Holly Hunter, Meg Ryan, Whoopi Goldberg, Salma Hayek and Robin Wright, to name a few) to find out how they cope with everything from chauvinism to the stereotyping of female characters in American cinema. In the final moments of the film, Arquette meets Debra Winger, a three-time Oscar nominee, to discuss why she left a high-profile profession while at the top of her game. No spoiler alert here — she had had enough of the demeaning and biased system in Hollywood that disrespects and objectifies women.

After watching this documentary, I was left with a sense of hope and empowerment. I just knew that film would bring women together, and we would begin building production companies designed to architect powerful female narratives. Months went by, then years, and while the documentary left an indelible mark on myself, nothing had changed. The invisible force working against us female professionals is media (specifically film and video storytelling). People believe what they see, and they are not seeing equality. Of all content viewed worldwide, 80% is created by the United States. This means we as a country are largely responsible for perpetuating stereotypes of how women are perceived globally. In fact, from 2006 to 2009, not one female character in family films was depicted holding a career as a business leader or in the fields of medical science, law, or politics. Fast forward to 2014— 80.5% of all working characters are male and 19.5% are female. This is in sharp contrast to real-world statistics where women comprise 50% of the workforce.

I recently filmed and interviewed Geena Davis, the founder of the Institute on Gender in Media. The Institute has commissioned more than 12 groundbreaking research studies and has amassed the largest body of research on gender prevalence in family entertainment spanning more than 20 years. Getty, Google, Target and the Bentonville Film Festival have rallied around her leadership regarding how to affect our media.

One study published by the Institute, “Gender Bias Without Borders,” investigates female characters in popular films across 11 countries. The study found that only 31% of speaking roles are occupied by females; 13% of films feature a female protagonist; and fictional female characters aged 13 to 39 are equally sexualized. These are just the statistics for women in front of the camera. Behind the camera, women only comprise 7% of directors, 20% of writers, and 23% of producers.

The study also shows that female executives are an endangered species in international films. When looking at the visibility of females by career, only 4% of females in film are depicted as sports figures; 9% as engineers; 10% as politicians; 12% in the life and physical sciences; 14% as C-Suite executives; 15% as doctors or other positions in the medical/healthcare industry; and 17% in technology.

Is it really a coincidence that 14.2% of the top five leadership positions at companies listed in the Standard & Poor’s 500 are held by women, and the above research reflects 14% of female characters in popular global film narratives hold C-suite level jobs?

It is imperative that we, as women, actively and intentionally direct our narrative. The invisible force works both ways, and video media can become a force on our side. While few of us are in the entertainment business, all professional women should be thinking of utilizing short-form video storytelling to showcase themselves and their fields online.

The power of video and the impact it can have is tremendous. In the United States, over 75 million people stream videos online every day. Telling your story through online video is 600% more effective than print and direct mail combined. Landing pages that feature a video leads to 800% more conversion, according to Funnel Science. MistMedia has found that 88% of visitors will stay longer on a site that has a prominent video displayed. Video is also being utilized by 93% of marketing campaigns, and it is projected that 90% of businesses and professionals will begin to increase their expenditures to include video.

Read the full article on Maria Shriver's Architects of Change  

Audrey Cavenecia