Women make up half the population of the United States, but only 17 percent of the crowd scenes of any given movie, Geena Davis said at Miami University Thursday night.
That’s just one example of the disparity women face, said the Oscar-winner, who prefers to be called an actor rather than an actress. Davis, who starred in “Thelma & Louise” and “A League of Their Own,” was the keynote speaker at the university’s inaugural Miami Women in Leadership conference.
In addition to telling stories from her Hollywood career, Davis spoke at length about her goal to improve equality for women, not only in the movies, but in the world at large. She founded the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media to achieve that aim.
“If we add women to Congress at the rate we have been, we will achieve parity in 500 years,” she said. “As Americans, we’re used to thinking of ourselves as leading the way, that we set the example. But profoundly not in this case.”
She asked the audience at the Armstrong Student Center, “Did you know that the United States ranks 90th in the world for female representation in elected office? Quick — name 89 countries.”
She attributed the disparity to “unconscious bias,” using orchestras as an example. Women made up 10 percent of orchestras until about the 1980s, when orchestras decided to bring more women on board. To do so, they held blind auditions so that judges could hear but not see who was playing. Nevertheless, they still found they were hiring more men, Davis said.
“Somebody had the idea to take their shoes off. It was the sound of the women’s heels coming up on the stage that was giving away a very unconscious signal that that was a woman, and then unconscious biases kick in about women,” Davis said. “We can reach equality as long as you don’t see us or hear us.”
Davis had inspired a lot of women in the audience, including student Blaire Wilson, a junior who spoke to the audience before Davis. Wilson is the president of Miami’s student foundation.
“To the kid in me, Geena Davis will always be the mom in ‘Stuart Little,’ a movie I watched far too many times traveling back and forth to my sister’s hockey practices. She had red hair, just like me, so I liked her right away,” she said. “To the woman in me today, Geena Davis is a remarkable role model, an example of what women can be.”
Davis reflected on the earlier days of her career, when she starred in “The Fly” and “Beetlejuice,” calling it “my bug period.” But it was “A League of Their Own,” in which she played baseball, that was a personal milestone. She had never played sports before that film and found out only then that she had athletic ability.
“It turned out that I actually am coordinated. It just took until I was 36 years old to find that out. Learning to play a sport dramatically changed my life. It dramatically changed my self-image about my body … I can’t tell you how many teenage girls come up to me and say, ‘I play sports because of that movie,’” Davis said.
When members of Miami’s softball team signaled from the audience, Davis said, “I bet you play because of ‘A League of Their Own.’”
“This is just one example of girls seeing something and realizing they can be it,” Davis said.