Film world confirms real gender biases — Executive Director

Keynote address by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka at the second Symposium on Gender in Media at UN Headquarters in New York, 22 September, 2014.


[Check against delivery]

Geena Davis,
Dr. Stacy Smith,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Good afternoon.

Thank you for this opportunity to address you as we review the results of the first-ever global study on the portrayal of women in film.  

UN Women is proud to be a partner on “Gender Bias without Borders.” 

This important work comes not a moment too soon.

Thanks to Geena for leadership on this issue and to the University of Southern California for their intellectual rigour.

Let’s consider the influence of media, in entertainment as well as in news:

  • In creating and sustaining perceptions and attitudes;
  • Shaping and solidifying social norms;
  • And as a potential force for good, just as currently a vehicle for misrepresentation.

The study shows that the film world confirms and deepens the biases of the real world.

The ugly truth:

  • Women and girls experience deep-seated discrimination and gender stereotyping in virtually every society.
  • Most filmmakers reinforce and perpetuate these attitudes.
  • Study finding: Women are highly sexualized in films, being twice as likely as men to be shown in sexually revealing clothes or partially nude, or nude.

There is a clear correlation between the representation of women leaders in filmmaking and more balanced content.

In the survey of films, one in every four filmmakers — directors, writers, producers — was a woman. Female directors or writers in the team increased the number of female characters on screen by seven per cent.

Many of those making the decisions are men, not just in this field.

Men are a vital audience.

A key area of our work is on violence against women. It is estimated that of all women killed in 2012, almost half were killed by intimate partners or family members.

HeForShe campaign:

To engage and mobilize men and boys in a far-reaching solidarity movement and to support them to become advocates for gender equality.

Emma Watson is our Goodwill Ambassador for the HeForShe campaign to engage men and boys to be advocates for gender equality. Her fans’ interest has twice crashed our website.

She said, “I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality either. We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes, but I can see that that they are and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence.”

Emma exemplifies how positive role modelling in media can be. After her speech on Saturday night, and invitation to join the global campaign, she and HeForShe became one of the top trending topics on Facebook.

Together, we have to challenge and change stereotypical perceptions of femininity and masculinity. 

In UN Women, we are working to:  

  • Increase women’s voice and leadership
  • Increase access to opportunities and resources
  • End violence against women, a pandemic that is fueled by discrimination and sexual stereotyping

Ultimately, we are working towards a world where women and men, girls and boys, are equal.

Civil society is playing a vital role in directly involving men as partners and stakeholders. Later this year in New Delhi, activists will meet at the second MenEngage Global Symposium to agree on what needs to happen to fully engage men and boys.

We have an international road map for gender equality — the Beijing Platform for Action, signed up to by 189 governments.

This year is the 20th anniversary. UN Women launched a global campaign, Beijing +20:

  • Re-energize the debate on this agenda for women’s empowerment
  • Galvanize renewed support for implementation

Specific calls by Beijing platform 20 years ago:

Everywhere, the potential exists for the media to make a far greater contribution to the advancement of women.

  • More women in decision-making positions in the media.
  • Codes of conduct to avoid stereotypical and degrading depictions of women.

It is not just the film industry where this is a problem. Elsewhere in the media, we see a similar story.

In a news media survey on gender representation (Global Media Monitoring project) we learned that: 

  • Twenty per cent of people interviewed, seen or heard were female.
  • Less than 20 per cent were female “expert voices.”
  • The picture is better in news reporting. Women report 44 per cent of stories on TV and 35 per cent in newspapers.

The top management in print media is utterly male-dominated:

  • Seventy-three per cent of all positions are held by men.
  • Three women are at the top of the 25 largest U.S. titles.
  • A fraction of all stories surveyed focus specifically on women.
  • Areas of special concern identified in the Beijing Platform for Action got an average of 1.5 per cent of media’s attention.

Role of social media — positive potential:

  • Exponential spread has transformed the global media landscape, and
  • Opened new avenues for women

Digital media:

  • In the United States, users of social networking sites are 74 per cent women, 62 per cent men.
  • Digital media have enabled UN Women to reach out to vast new audiences and engage them around women’s empowerment and gender equality issues. 
  • The public increasingly share this space — citizen journalism.
  • The public uses the internet to expose sexual violence and other forms of gender discrimination – send in videos/stories.
  • They challenge institutions that by their silence collude with impunity.
  • However, digital media also have potential for new types of violence, such as bullying, cyber-stalking and harassment. The public is speaking out. Facebook was put under popular pressure to revise its policy on tolerating rape jokes and images that portray violence against women.
  • Online gaming and video is a new and uncharted area of influence — positive and negative — on gender stereotyping.  
    • Massive audiences for gaming. Last year, 71 million people watched other people play games
    • Fastest growing segment is female viewers
    • In the U.S. alone, 144 million people use their mobile phones for gaming.

There is a serious deficit in internet access:

  • Two thirds of the world’s population still has no internet.
  • Women in developing countries are much less likely than men to go online. 
  • Six billion phone owners. There is great potential in the use of mobile technology.
  • Help women to communicate, search for jobs, learn online, and access information related to health services and banking.

The Broadband Commission has just met:

  • It has set its goals and planned its road map for equality in access to broadband by 2020.
  • We are determined to make sure that the issues identified by the Commission are given due attention before 2015.

The problems we see in the film industry are the problems of the world. We call for:

  • Better gender balance in executive positions in filmmaking as well as in the news media.
  • Media to set affirmative standards. Portray images of women that are empowering.
  • Increase science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) representation. Experts tell us that positive and more visible media portrayal of girls and women in science, technology and engineering will have a critical influence in their pursuing these studies and careers.
  • Media decision makers to accept and take on their role in promoting gender equality.
  • Governments to create a conducive policy environment.
  • Make online platforms free from violence.
  • Explore the representation of girls and women, and gender stereotypes in video and online gaming.
  • Reach and engage girls and women through social media.
  • Make internet access more even.

Stacy Smith, the lead author of “Gender Bias without Borders,” concludes that
“filmmakers make more than movies, they make choices.”

We are thankful for the much needed evidence produced by this study.

We are also very thankful for the inspiring leadership being provided by those in the industry itself.

By Geena, who has taken up this cause. By Emma Watson, Forest Whitaker, by Angelina Jolie and others.

I hope that sometime soon, with your strong voices raised, there will be movies that help us advance the causes of poverty, of the environment, of women and of humanity.

Thank you.

To read more about this launch event, including our press release, infographics, social media coverage and more, visit our Events page