When Oscar-winning actress Geena Davis was young, she and a female friend pretended to be male characters from the 1958 TV series “The Rifleman,” she told a group of women and girls in San Francisco today.
The problem, she explained, was that there weren’t any women on TV or in movies who she wanted to emulate.
And although it feels as though women have made great strides, whether in media representation or politics, the truth is women are still underrepresented in both sectors, she said.
Davis was speaking at the 21st annual Professional Business Women of California conference, which Congresswoman Jackie Speier, D-San Francisco, founded 21 years ago as an opportunity for women to “tune up, network and be inspired.”
The conference hosted workshops for women and girls ranging from high school students to female executives, according to Ann Barlow, president of the Professional Business Women of California. About 3,500 women attended this year’s event.
Several keynote speakers, including Speier, reiterated or expanded upon Davis’s message: there’s no conspiracy against women, but there are disparities that go unnoticed. These disparities have been accepted as the status quo, and women are often undervalued or treated as second-class citizens as a result, the presenters said.
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media recently completed a study in conjunction with the University of Southern California in Los Angeles that found male characters outnumber female characters 3 to 1 in programming aimed at children.
In group scenes, just 17 percent of the characters are female, Davis said. The vast majority are highly stereotyped or dressed in provocative clothing, she said.
“We judge our value by seeing ourselves reflected in culture,” Davis said. “So we’re acculturating the next generation to feel women are lesser.”
Davis said studies show that the more TV girls watch, the more limited they feel. Boys also become increasingly sexist as their viewing hours increase.
Another keynote speaker, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, said women hold just 15 percent of Congressional seats and fill even fewer leadership positions in other fields.
She believes this is directly related to the lack of female role models shown in the media and the way women, especially ones in power, are mocked or trivialized.
“So many of these images are demeaning and hyper-sexualized,” she said before her speech. “We want to show (the girls here) what they can become.”
It’s not just in media that women are complicity treated as second-class citizens, other speakers said.
Until health care reform was passed in March, gender discrimination in health care was not only rampant, but also legal, Speier argued in her address.
It was legal to charge women more for their individual plans just for being women, and the National Women’s Law Center found women were charged up to 140 percent more for their plans than men were, Speier said. A 40-year-old male smoker could pay less than the average 40-year-old woman for coverage.
Some health insurance companies considered Cesarean sections and domestic violence pre-existing conditions and denied women coverage based upon them, she said.
“It is no longer going to be a pre-existing condition to be a woman in America,” she told the crowd.