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Geena Davis Wants to Solve Hollywood's Gender Gap Problem With New Tech Tool

The Academy Award-winning actress has a new weapon in her arsenal for her decades-long battle against gender inequality in Hollywood.
Image: Rey from Star Wars
Rey from Star Wars.Rey from Star Wars / Lucasfilm Ltd.; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Actress Geena Davis has a new weapon in her arsenal for her decades-long battle against gender inequality in Hollywood.

At a global symposium in New York City on Thursday, she unveiled the Geena Davis Inclusion Quotient (or GD-IQ). The new tool, sponsored by Google and crafted at the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering, can track how often women appear on screen, how much they talk and the quality of their dialogue.

The GD-IQ uses automated technology that is faster and more effective than human coders to determine whether or not our media is truly providing a balanced portrait of the populace and where there is room for improvement.

Their research suggests that this tool could not have come at a more opportune time. According to a study from Davis' Institute on Gender in Media at Mount Saint Mary's University in Los Angeles, in the highest-grossing top 200 non-animated films of last year, male characters received about twice the amount of screen time as female characters (28.5 percent compared to 16 percent ) and male characters spoke two times as often as female characters (28.4 percent compared to 15.4 percent).

Related: Geena Davis on Hollywood Gender Disparity: We Can Fix It 'Overnight'

This phenomenon occurred despite the fact that films with women in leading roles made 15.8 percent more on average than films with male leads, according to the study. And even in films where women are the star, men get almost as much screen time and dialogue, sometimes more.

Still, according to Davis, this is not a case of the industry intentionally marginalizing women.

"Unconscious gender bias is not an evil plot," she said on Thursday. "They genuinely want to do right by kids."

But the reality is that ratio of male-to-female characters in films has been roughly the same since 1946, and that can have potentially harmful affects on the self image and aspirations of young women and girls.

When media departs from these stereotypes, it can have astonishing results. For instance, Davis cited an enormous spike in female interest in the sport of archery following the depiction of women archers in "The Hunger Games" films and in the animated Pixar movie "Brave."

Internationally, positive non-stereotypical images of women have had an impact, too. According to Sherrie Westin, Executive Vice President of Global Impact and Philanthropy at Sesame Workshop, the Afghanistan iteration of "Sesame Street" (which features an empowered girl Muppet named Zari) has not only inspired young women in that country to pursue an education, but it has also gradually changed the hearts and minds of boys and fathers, many of whom had previously opposed the idea of equal access to schooling.

Davis, 60, pursued archery herself after seeing women on television competing in the sport, and made it all the way to the semifinals of the 2000 U.S. Olympic trials, because, she said, "I take everything too far."

Davis, who won an Academy Award for her role in 1988's "Accidental Tourist" and a Golden Globe as the the first U.S. woman president on ABC's "Commander in Chief," has been lobbying producers and studios for years to recast roles initially written for men with women, and has persuaded the likes of TV super-producer Shonda Rhimes to increase gender balance in crowd scenes, which have traditionally been dominated solely by male extras.

Related: #ActuallySheCan: Female filmmakers make their mark at Tribeca

As she has argued in the past, Davis believes Hollywood could solve their gender representation issues virtually overnight, and that they should, if for no other reason than the research shows how much of a toll it takes on children.

"Let's stop showing them boys are more important than girls, which is what we're saying if they're on screen more, if they're saying more, if they're doing all the interesting things. That's what we're saying and there's no getting around it" Davis said. "The only direction this is going, the world is going, is toward more equality, more parity, so let's just get there a lot faster. Immediately, basically."

"We can't make half of Congress women tomorrow, but they can be on TV," she added.

There are some glimmers of hope. For instance, "Selma" director Ava DuVernay recently became the first woman director of color (and just the third woman ever) signed to helm a live action $100 million film production — the big screen adaptation of the beloved Madeleine L'Engle children's book "A Wrinkle In Time."

"That is going to be a super exciting movie ... they're letting her follow her vision," said Women and Hollywood founder and publisher Melissa Silverstein at the symposium, highlighting the massive marketing push for the film planned by Disney. "It just kind of shifts our perspectives of opportunities and what people can do."

On the other hand, this weekend's most anticipated new film, the Denzel Washington-Chris Pratt reboot of the 1960 Western classic "The Magnificent Seven," is almost entirely male-dominated with the exception of one significant female character who largely looms on the periphery.

For many it's not just about being present — it's about having a strong and significant character to perform.

"I want to see complex, fallible, fully realized that have relationships with other women," offered "Halt and Catch Fire" actress Kerry Bishé. In other words, movies and television shows that pass the "Bechdel Test" — which means it features at least two women having a conversation about something not related to a man.

The GD-IQ could function as a high-tech version of that standard, providing state-of-the-art, incontrovertible data and evidence of bias despite the reality that films starring women make money and can appeal across gender lines.

In the meantime, Silverstein has a simple message for studios who have been recalcitrant for decades about putting more females behind and in front of the cameras: "F--king hire women!"