In the movie "Long Kiss Goodnight," Geena Davis inspired a generation of urban youth to respect the femme fatale butt-kicking assassin Charly Baltimore, while her roles in "Thelma and Louise" and "A League of Their Own" captured the loyalty of a generation of middle American women. Now she is trying to inspire another generation of girls and women to pursue non-traditional careers by changing the way women are portrayed on television and in movies. Fifty years after President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, America still hasn’t closed the pay gap, but as women become an increasingly more important part of household wage earners, we need advocates like Geena Davis to succeed.
Studies report wages stalled out for men in the 1970s and the subsequent growth in household income for two-parent families has been primarily due to women’s increased working hours. Women are primary breadwinners in 40 percent of American households, but still earn only 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man – even less for blacks and Latinas. As President Obama said on Monday, "If (women are) bringing home more of the income and that income is less than a fair share, that means that families have less to get by on, for child care or health care or gas or groceries...It makes it harder for middle-class families to save and retire. It leaves small businesses with customers who have less money in their pockets, which is not good for the economy."
According to the Department of Commerce, one place where that pay gap has evaporated is in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math occupations, which pay women 33 percent more than other jobs. As the Department reports, "although women fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs." The Commerce Department also found that women earn 41 percent of PhD’s in STEM but make up only 28 percent of tenured STEM faculty. If America is to remain globally competitive, we need more students to pursue work in the field and we need women to stay there.
Experts believe there are many reasons for the disparity in women filling these jobs, including lifestyle and work conditions, but ability in science and math is not one of them. The University of Pittsburgh recently released a study revealing that more women than men have both high math and verbal abilities. Ming-Te Wang, a developmental psychologist who is one of the co-authors of the study says, "because they're good at both, (women) can consider a wide range of occupations."
One cause of the disparity in women filling STEM jobs may be a lack of role models, and that’s where Geena Davis comes in. As a Hollywood insider she has been encouraging writers, producers and directors to include more professional women in their movies and television series.
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media at the University of Southern California has been studying the number of women in on-camera speaking roles and found that great disparities and stereotypes persist. Women were sexualized more often than men and had fewer speaking roles. In a 2010 study, the Institute found there were 160 speaking roles in family films (rated G, PG or PG-13) where the character was revealed to work in a STEM job. Only 26 of them were women, just 16.3 percent. In prime time there were 71 STEM employed characters; only 15 of them women.
One trend that fuels Davis’ work is that over half of the women working in STEM on television worked as forensic pathologists or medical examiners on shows like "CSI" and "NCIS." That might explain why more women are choosing that path. As the Washington Post noted, "Nationwide, women averaged 78 percent of the 1,250 students enrolled in 22 graduate and undergraduate programs accredited by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, according to a 2008 report by Max M. Houck, former director of the Forensic Science Initiative at West Virginia University."
In addition to television characters, girls need to encounter more real-life models for their success in STEM. Organizations such as Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, Code Now and Code.org are trying to bridge the gap to tech careers in communities across America and could use increased support. If they keep more girls and people of color on the path to these high-paying careers, a more diverse America will be on its way to having the workers, entrepreneurs and consumers we need for another American century.