Melinda Gates recently announced that she'll commit $1 billion to causes that seek innovative and diverse approaches to expanding women's power and influence--and she wants businesses to step up.
"Companies can help by waking up to the fact that telling new and better stories about women is smart business," writes Gates in a recent essay for Harvard Business Review. She specifically cites the strides made by the entertainment industry. While professional women remain woefully underrepresented in movies and TV, the industry overall has made real progress. That's, in part, thanks to the "Bechdel test," which continues to hold filmmakers accountable for how they present women in movies.
Named for cartoonist Alison Bechdel's 1985 comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, the Bechdel test today has become a popular measure of female character depth. The bar for passage is undeniably low: Two women must appear together onscreen, at any point in the film, having a conversation about anything other than a man.
Still, Gates suggests any small step forward helps. She adds that if it's true that the Bechdel test is working in the entertainment industry--that more women are landing more complex roles--then there's reason to believe it can work for companies, too.
It starts with the stories we tell. Citing a 2016 study by Lin Bian, a professor of human development at Cornell University, she points out that by the time children are 6 years old, they tend to guess that a story about a really smart person is about a man. "If you associate smartness with men, and you're not a man, then you might think certain career paths are less available to you," writes Gates. This collective bias manifests itself as a barrier to entry for women in certain careers.
Stereotypical representations of women can be changed, but it needs to start from those responsible for the stories that circulate throughout society, says Gates. "Textbook companies can launch initiatives to diversify the content and images in their next editions," notes Gates. "Philanthropists and venture capitalists can help incubate and scale up journalism organizations committed to hiring reporters of diverse backgrounds to report on issues disproportionately impacting women."
What's more, Gates notes, if companies make women a bigger part of their stories--like the entertainment industry has done--increased profitability can follow. According to an analysis of data assembled by Gracenote, an entertainment data firm, for every major budget category from 2014 to 2017, movies that passed the Bechdel test made more money, on average, than films that failed the test. Moreover, all of the movies that have exceeded $1 billion in revenue since 2012 passed the Bechdel test.