madeline dinonno
Madeline Di Nonno joined the Geena Davis Institute in 2009.

Note: This is part of our ongoing Women in Hollywood project. 

Look closely at crowd scenes the next time you’re watching a television show or movie. Notice anything? The majority of people are male. That sort of basic gender imbalance is precisely what the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media seeks to identify and improve through its in-depth entertainment research. We spoke with Chief Executive Madeline Di Nonno about how the institute got started, the prevalence of stereotyping and how the fictional world of film could make the world a better place for women.

Edited interview excerpts follow.

The Story Exchange: Please tell me what motivated Geena Davis, the Academy Award-nominated actress, to create the institute.

It came out of a very personal experience for Geena. Obviously, she’s had a lot of success, but everyone who is female and an actor over the age of 40 knows how difficult it is to get lead roles. She had a heightened sense of depictions of women and girls. When she had her daughter, like any mom she watched movies — and she was so shocked by the dearth of female characters. Not only were there so few of them, but they didn’t appear to contribute much, in terms of their attributes. She’d speak to friends and people in the industry, who’d say “No, no, that’s been fixed.” They thought just because they had one, they had the whole gender covered. Geena thought: “Gee, I think we need research.” She raised the money on her own in 2004 to start the institute. She commissioned Stacy Smith, a researcher from USC Annenberg, to determine if there were indeed very few female characters. That very first study found that was about a 3-to-1 ratio of male-to-female characters across TV and film, and the attributes of the female characters [such as hyper sexualized and thin] mostly served as eye candy.

Geena Davis, founder of the research institute that bears her name.
Geena Davis, founder of the research institute that bears her name.

The Story Exchange: As an organization, you advocate for better roles for females, particularly in children’s media. You want a more powerful on-screen depiction of girls and women than we actually have in real life. Why is that?

If you can shape the mind of a child you can change the world. When you think of our youngest children, they are just forming a sense of themselves, their cultural beliefs and behaviors. They don’t have the unconscious bias that we have as adults. If the fictional world of film and TV shows a landscape of female characters that are diverse, that have  unique attributes, that are CEOs and doctors and scientists — how will that inspire our children? Will our children expect women in leadership roles? It should then be normal. In the reverse, it should be a shock if a boy walks into a room and there are no females. That’s our theory of change.

The Story Exchange: How long have you personally been involved, and what drew you to the Geena Davis Institute?

I came on board about 6 years ago. For me, it was really using my background — my 30-year career in media, marketing and business development in the entertainment and nonprofit industries — to drive social change. For me, the adventure was: What would a better world for women look like? At the same time, Geena was perfecting the theory of change and wanted a business executive who had deep roots in the industry and also nonprofit experience. So we came together and it was just a perfect partnership.

The Story Exchange: Your research has found that women aren’t even cast in crowd scenes. Was that eye-opening?

Yes. I was surprised, and so is everyone else when we present it. Women are 50% of the population, but pretty much in film and television, we’re shown under 30 percent of the time. [The institute’s latest data reports that women make up only 17% of characters in crowd scenes.] That’s a huge disparity. The default is male. The science-fiction movies that are supposed to depict the future, that have limited roles for women, are really crazy.  We suggest that when you write “a crowd gathers” in a script, make it a “a crowd of 50% men and 50% women gathers.”


The Story Exchange: What other recommendations do you have for the industry for getting more females on the screen or behind-the-scenes?

Number one, we know that when there is a female writer or director, there is a 7-10% increase of on-screen roles for women. Right now, there is a 4-to-1 ratio of men-to-women behind the scenes. When you shift that landscape, you’ll clearly see more women. It really doesn’t have to be that complicated: Hire more women, and look at your content. Use a gender lens.

The Story Exchange: Any big projects coming up?

We are finishing up a second global study on how film influences consumers around the world. And we’ll present that either at the end of this year or early next. And we’re in the middle of a grant we received from Google, about using computer science to help us do our research quicker.