At last week’s Bentonville Film Festival, Walmart Foundation President Kathleen McLaughlin moderated a panel discussion exploring what women’s economic empowerment means from several perspectives. Speakers included actress and BFF Co-Founder Geena Davis; Pamela Prince Eason, president and CEO of the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council; Helene Gayle, president and CEO of CARE USA; and Abigail Wozniak, senior economist for the White House Council of Economic Advisors. The following is an excerpt of their conversation.
Kathleen: What do we mean by women’s economic empowerment? What would that look like to say that women are empowered? Why do we care about this issue?
Helene: CARE has been around for 70-something years, and we’ve evolved to consider how we find long-term, sustainable solutions to ending poverty. Over the years, it’s been very clear that if we want to have an impact, it’s focusing on girls and women. They make up the largest proportion of people living in poverty around the world – over 60%. When you focus on girls and women, you have the greatest long lasting impact. A girl who has an education knows she has a future. When she has extra income, she’ll put that back into the family, then she has a multiplier effect. That can cause extreme change. Girls and women are the best returns on investment; what happens in families, communities and then nations can be different. There’s lots of evidence that shows not only an economic but social return.
Kathleen: Why are you dedicating your lives to this cause?
Geena: The ratio of male to female characters in films has not changed since 1946. I became really aware of this after I was in “Thelma & Louise,” because all the press said things have changed, there will be so many more female buddy characters [in the near future]. And here we are today, hard pressed to name two female leads in one movie until like, “Frozen.”
On average, for every one female speaking character there are three male characters. In crowd scenes, the world the story takes place in, only 17% of the characters are female. It’s kind of appalling and horrifying. So what we’re doing then is training kids to have an unconscious bias against women … only 20% of characters with jobs are women … there are very few leaders … we’re really showing a horribly imbalanced world to kids from the very beginning. 80% of the media consumed globally is made in the U.S. We’re responsible for exporting a very negative view of women around the world … that’s what boys and girls internalize.
Abigail: In the labor market, I’m pleased to report that there have been tremendous strides in the share of women, and that has happened over the 20th century. Around 1947, only 30% of women were working outside the home … now, over 70% of women participate in the labor market. We’ve made gains in pay, and tremendous gains in educational attainment. As of the 1970s, women were more likely to complete college than men, now they’re more likely to get advanced degrees … now the question is … what are they doing once they get in labor market? Why are they’re earning what they’re earning? What positions are they holding? We’re thinking about how we can encourage more participation at all levels.
Helene: A study I’m sure you’re very familiar with is one that linked economic performance of major corporations to the percentage of women on boards, and those in senior executive positions. It showed that companies performed better when more women were on boards. Not only does it add to growth, but companies actually do better when more women are in leadership roles.
Geena: Also, movies that have more women make more money and are less likely to fail. So you’d think now that the evidence is in, it would be like, now, ‘Let’s get more women on our boards,’ but it’s not happening.
Kathleen: Let’s talk about barriers to empowerment, and the strategies you’ve been employing. Abigail, you’ve been working on pay equity, but what else?
Abigail: We’ve been studying women in the jobs they choose and why they chose them. There’s a real question as to why women aren’t making it into all fields in equal numbers. What are they doing in that educational environment, and what are the first steps they’re taking in their careers? We’re working on getting women into STEM fields … another major area that we’ve tried to make progress in is, once they start in the door, how do we keep them there? The pay gap among women starts at a young age … it’s important that we take steps to help women continue to stay in workforce … such as paid leave. It turns out … that if you have to leave your employer because you’re faced with a really short-term choice … then it becomes much harder to rejoin that employer.
Pamela: Mentors and networks are two of the most important things that women need to be as effective as their male counterparts. We recognize that young women are not making right the right decisions in middle school … they’re making decisions to stay away from certain subject matter … not just STEM, but also things that would take those children into the trades … Women love to give back. As women make money, they’ll continue to reinvest that in their community, but also do it in form of mentorship … we work to bring young women into networks to get them to know successful women entrepreneurs and also successful male entrepreneurs,.
Geena: When you think about all the progress that needs to be made and how long it’s going to take, the one sector where change can happen overnight is on screen. In the “Iron Man” movies, Pepper went from executive assistant to CEO of a national corporation, so you can get promoted really fast in the space of one movie. My motto is, if they can see it they can be it, and that’s actually true. I once met the former president of Iceland, who told me she would get letters from little boys saying, ‘Do you think I can be president?’ If you see it, that’s what you believe is real. We study occupations of all female characters on TV. One of the best fields of women representation was forensic science, and so in the real world, demand for courses of forensic science for women has skyrocketed. So if we regularly see women doing unstereotypical things, life will imitate art and we don’t have to wait.