Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media & Innovation Group J. Walter Thompson Intelligence



In 2017, discussions around gender and media have reached a fever pitch. Following a bruising year at the ballot box, fourth-wave feminism has continued to expand. From the Women’s March to high-profile sexual harassment trials to the increasing number of female protagonists gaining audience recognition in an age of “peak TV,” women are ensuring that their concerns are heard and represented.

We’ve seen movements for gender equality in Hollywood, in Silicon Valley — and even on Madison Avenue. In response to longstanding sexism in advertising, industry leaders such as Madonna Badger are highlighting how objectification of women in advertising can lead to unconscious biases that harm women, girls and society as a whole.

Agencies are creating marquee campaigns to support women and girls. The Always #LikeAGirl campaign, which debuted in 2014, ignited a wave of me-too “femvertising” campaigns: #GirlsCan from Cover Girl, “This Girl Can” from Sport England and the UK’s National Lottery, and a spot from H&M that showcased women in all their diversity, set to “She’s a Lady.” Cannes Lions got in on the act in 2015, introducing the Glass Lion: The Lion for Change, an award to honor ad campaigns that address gender inequality or prejudice.

But beyond the marquee case studies, is the advertising industry making strides toward improving representation of women overall? How do we square the surge in “femvertising” with insights from J. Walter Thompson’s Female Tribes initiative, which found in 2016 that, according to 85% of women, the advertising world needs to catch up with the real world?

We’re finally able to answer these questions with the same rigorous, data-driven approach that informs so many other important decisions in advertising.

New joint research from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media at Mount Saint Mary’s University and J. Walter Thompson New York, funded by and developed at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering, analyzed more than 2,000 English-language films from the Cannes Lions archive to put numbers to the challenge of female representation in advertising, and get a sense of whether the situation is changing.

“Technology advances in data sciences and machine learning give us new ways of shining light on media content, at scale and with an unprecedented level of detail and accuracy,” says Shri Narayanan, Niki & C. L. Max Nikias Chair in Engineering, University of Southern California. “It can give us novel insights not just by eliminating the mystery about potential unconscious biases in content, but in offering objective tools to shape content.”

Or, in the words of Caroline Heldman, research adviser to the Geena Davis Institute and associate professor in the politics department at Occidental College, “more data means more light is shed on the problem, which inspires more activism around the issue.”

“Gender Bias in Advertising” emerges from earlier work by the Geena Davis Institute to create a tool to analyze gender representation in entertainment media. The Geena Davis Institute partnered with the Signal Analysis and Interpretation Laboratory (SAIL) at USC and with funding from to create the Geena Davis Inclusion Quotient (GD-IQ), which Heldman describes as “a computer engineering tool that is able to automatically analyze the screen time and speaking time of characters in video down to the millisecond.” Heldman says it’s the only software in existence specifically developed to collectively analyze gender, screen time and speaking time in media and entertainment content.

Apart from automating the task of counting faces and voices, the GD-IQ is able to mark times with much greater precision than human researchers can achieve. “There’s infinite possibility,” says Madeline Di Nonno, CEO of the Geena Davis Institute. “We’re excited because it allows us to reveal a level of unconscious bias that isn’t possible with the human eye, and it’s able to go much deeper.



The research analyzed more than 2,000 Cannes Lions films from 2006 to 2016, focusing on winning and shortlisted entries in the Film and Film Craft categories from five English-speaking markets: the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The sample included ads across 33 different categories, from cosmetics to insurance to social causes.

Supporting the automated analysis, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media research team conducted additional research, identifying age, location, objectification, and other personal characteristics associated with prominent characters. This analysis was based on verbal, physical, occupational, and social cues plus other factors.

The research found that women consistently accounted for only about one third of all characters in commercials, across all years tested. In 2006, 33.9% of characters were women. Ten years later, the figure had barely budged, reaching only 36.9%.

“We assumed that in advertising, given that women dominate purchasing, that commercials would have much greater female representation,” says Di Nonno. “To find out the reverse was quite surprising.”

Moreover, when it comes to women’s screen time and speaking time in commercials, no statistically significant change has occurred in 10 years. In 2006, 43.6% of all commercials featured women on screen for 20% or less of their duration. In 2016, the figure was 44.2%. Ads depicting men only were five times as common as ads depicting women only: 25% and 5% of all ads, respectively. Men get about four times as much screen time as women.

The study found similar percentages when it comes to speaking time. In 2006, 42.3% of commercials featured women speaking for 20% or less of the time spent on dialogue, compared to 41.7% in 2016. Analyzing the number of utterances, our research counted about three times as many for men as for women. Ads with only male voices were much more common than ads with only female voices, accounting for 18% and 3% of ads, respectively. Men speak about seven times more than women.

The research also examined the content of speech for men and women in ads. Lines of dialogue spoken by men were about 29% more likely than lines spoken by women to contain words associated with power, and 28% more likely to contain words associated with achievement.

The research also measured the dialogue’s complexity using the Flesch-Kincaid readability test. While both genders spoke lines that could be understood by the average fifth grader, women’s spoken dialogue was slightly simpler than men’s.

“What this research shows is that our industry has ‘tent-pole moments’ — amazing actions or campaigns when we all rally around women,” says Brent Choi, chief creative officer of J. Walter Thompson New York, “but when it comes to creating our ‘regular’ ads for our ‘regular’ clients, we forget about them.”

Our research focused on analyzing advertisements themselves, rather than the industry that produces them. But the experience of the Geena Davis Institute has shown that the systemic problems that produce skewed gender representation can’t be solved simply by adding female characters. More info.

“We now know that simply adding women to scripts will not solve gender inequality in entertainment media,” says Heldman. “We have to write female characters with more screen time, more speaking time, more prominence in the storyline, with more personal agency, and without objectifying them.”

The Geena Davis Institute’s prior analysis of Hollywood films has also shown that the gender composition of the teams behind them has a powerful effect on how they turn out. “On the film side, we learned that when there was a female writer attached, we saw a 7.5% increase in on-screen roles for women across the 10 largest film markets,” Di Nonno says. Considering the extremely low percentage of female creative directors in advertising, she adds, the results of the latest study may not be so surprising


In the current feminist moment, people are paying more attention than ever to women working behind the scenes in film, media and photography, and how this ultimately affects these industries’ output.

The most recent example is Wonder Woman, which made headlines for taking $103.1 million in its debut weekend in the US alone. It was trailblazing not only for being the first DC/Marvel superhero film to feature a female protagonist (following 19 male-led films since the movie franchise launched in 2008), but also because its director, Patty Jenkins, is one of only three women to direct a live- action film with a budget of over $100 million.

The success of Wonder Woman sparked discussion about the need for more female directors, writers and producers. Fans and critics have also widely recognized how a woman behind the lens affected important choices and nuances in the movie that were central to its triumph.

The Getty Images Lean In Collection, a collection of realistic, authentic images of women and the communities that support them, is in many ways the opposite of a flashy nine-figure Hollywood blockbuster. But its reach is no less impressive: since launching in 2014, nearly 40,000 images have been downloaded through the collection, while Lean In images have been licensed in more than 95 countries.

“We’re beginning to understand that it’s not just about high profile wins, or campaigns, but it’s about creating a mass volume of images that present positive alternatives and about having a relentless commitment to the normalization of female power in all forums and spheres,” says Pam Grossman, director of visual trends at Getty Images.

“It’s also about representing the nuance of the female gaze,” she continues. “A female director will most likely shoot the same scene in an entirely different way and with a different perspective—one that takes into account female ambition, desire, fantasy, agency, not to mention realistic physiology.” Grossman notes that academic concepts such as the “male gaze,” once little-discussed outside liberal arts campuses, are now part of mainstream cultural discourse in a way that seemed unlikely until very recently.

“In 2016, only 7% of the top films were directed by women. Representation starts with content creators, which is why it’s so critical to have diversity behind the lens as well as in front of it,” says Piera Gelardi, executive creative director and cofounder of Refinery29. In response, Refinery29 launched Shatterbox Anthology, a film series “working to cultivate and spotlight the voices of women behind the camera, telling stories outside the narrow lens of the overwhelmingly male-dominated industry.” Films supported so far include Kitty, Chloë Sevigny’s fantastical meditation on childhood; The Tale of Four, a poetic rumination on dignity in crisis by Gabourey Sidibe; Come Swim, a surreal vision by Kristen Stewart; and 50/50, a timely women’s rights documentary by Tiffany Shlain.

Girlgaze, a project by the English photographer and media entrepreneur Amanda de Cadenet, bills itself as “the first multimedia platform committed to supporting girls behind the camera.” The project aims to help women break into the photography industry by raising awareness of how women tell visual stories. It features curators including supermodel Amber Valletta and photographer Inez van Lamsweerde. Contributors include Yara Shahidi, an idol for generation Z, dancer Maddie Ziegler, and TV host Alexa Chung, while a roster of female- identifying photographers rounds out the group.

Thalia Mavros, founder of media platform The Front, places female ownership at the core of her business model. “Even though we see a huge disparity in ownership, we still had a few potential investors aggressively challenge the importance of investing in female media entrepreneurs,” says Mavros. “A few heated arguments and door slams later, I am proud to say we are founded and run by women, our investor has a female chief executive at the helm, and even our board of directors is all-female.”

Heldman notes that this year the number of female leads in the top-grossing Hollywood movies broke 30% for the first time since the Geena Davis Institute began measuring the percentage. But she cautions that in Hollywood, even a huge success like Wonder Woman may not be enough to tip the scales in favor of more women-led action films.

As in so many other areas, it will come down to who’s making the films. “I think Hollywood could be making a lot more money if they did a better job of telling more and more authentic stories of women’s lives,” Heldman says, “but without more women behind the scenes, we won’t see more women on the big and little screens.”

Grossman agrees: “Everyone likes great storytelling, and we all empathize with nuanced characters. But we’re more likely to see that sort of work created about women if it is created by women."

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About the Innovation Group

The Innovation Group is J. Walter Thompson’s futurism, research and innovation unit. It charts emerging and future global trends, consumer change, and innovation patterns—translating these into insight for brands. It offers
a suite of consultancy services, including bespoke research, presentations, co-branded reports and workshops. It is also active in innovation, partnering with brands to activate future trends within their framework and execute new products and concepts. It is led by Lucie Greene, Worldwide Director of the Innovation Group. For more information, visit

About the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media

Founded by Academy Award®–winning actor Geena Davis, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media at Mount Saint Mary’s University is the only research-based organization working with media and entertainment companies with cutting-edge research, education and advocacy programs to dramatically improve how girls and women are reflected in media targeting children 11 and under.

Research for this report was led by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and J. Walter Thompson, and conducted by Dr. Shri Narayanan, Krishna Somadepalli, and the team of Engineers at the University of Southern California’s Signal Analysis and Interpretation Laboratory (SAIL), in collaboration with Dr. Caroline Heldman and the team of researchers at the Geena Davis Institute.


Lucie Greene
Worldwide Director of the Innovation Group J. Walter Thompson Intelligence

Madeline Di Nonno
CEO, Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media

Sherri Chambers
CMO, J. Walter Thompson New York

Editor: Shepherd Laughlin
Visual Editor: Emma Chiu
Assistant Editor: Mary Cass
Picture Assistant: Jaime Eisenbraun
Infographics designed by Vaibhav Bhanot