Since 2004, Geena Davis has been fighting for fair representation in her industry through the work done at the Geena Davis Institute on Gender In Media. As a new study conducted by her organization and TENA (a popular female health + incontinence brand) shows, there's still a long way to go.
The results of the global Ageless Test, which examines how women ages 50 and over are portrayed in film, found only 1 in 4 films passed, with no women over 50 cast in any leading roles in 2019's 30 top-grossing films from the U.S., the U.K., France and Germany.
"I knew it was bad, but this really drove home how very dismal it is," Davis, 64, tells PEOPLE. "If you look at lead characters in this study, there were no women, female characters over 50 leading. And it's a shame, I mean, there are significant sectors of our society that are significantly underrepresented and definitely age is one of them, particularly for women."
Davis, who won an honorary Oscar in 2019 for her work fighting for gender-parity in media, is however overjoyed by some hopeful news uncovered by her Institute, which points to positive change.
"Last fall, we updated our study of television made for kids 13 and under and found that for the first time ever in the lead characters, we had reached parity for female and male characters, which was huge," she says. "I mean, that's so different from when we first started out about 15 years ago. So, that's wonderful. And then earlier this year, we updated our research on family rated films, PG and PG-13, and found that the same phenomenon had happened, that we have finally reached parity in the lead characters as far as male and female goes. So we are beyond thrilled about that."
As Davis previously revealed to PEOPLE, it was being a mom that led her to initially found the Institute. When her three children were just a few years old, Davis embarked on a journey to champion real-world-reflective gender balance in the media — as well as for minorities and other underrepresented groups. Taking note of the films and TV series her then-preschool age kids —daughter Alizeh, now 17, and twin sons Kaiis and Kian, 15, with former husband Reza Jarrahy — were viewing, she recognized just how few women and girls appeared onscreen.
"The thing is until I had kids, I didn't notice the state of kids' entertainment, I had no idea," she tells PEOPLE. "It wasn't until I had my daughter that I saw that there was profound gender inequality in the movies and TV that are made for kids.
"And I thought, surely in the 21st century, we should be showing kids that boys and girls share the sandbox equally. I mean, by now, we're all trying to work on the problem of gender equality and fix this problem, yet from minute one we're teaching kids to have unconscious bias by saying, basically girls are not as important as boys."
16 years later, Davis confesses her kids are "proud" of the work she's done at the Institute.
Still, she jokes she feels like she's "failing in some way" when reading about families growing closer together during the pandemic, while remaining home all together.
"We're definitely spending a lot of time together, but I don't know that I can claim that we've had meaningful, serious encounters that we never would have if we weren't forced to be together this much," Davis says. "I mean, certainly we have our share of that, but it hasn't suddenly become just incredible, a retreat spa where we're all bonding in some mystical way."
And like most parents, she's keeping her children occupied with activities leading up to Halloween.
"The kids and I were carving pumpkins last night," she says smiling. "I didn't finish mine, but I'm carving Joe Biden on the front of the pumpkin. So if it comes out good, I'll get back in touch, send you a photo or something."
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