Movies lack alpha females too.

Last week Campaign journalist Louise Ridley asked me to comment on a piece of research which said that advertising lacked alpha females. The sample size was only 35 but the IPA’s statistics confirm that female advertising leadership stands at 26% … Not bad compared to some industries, great compared to the representation of women in the Cabinet, hardly representative of either the UK population, or gender splits at grad intake level.


My next book is about women and work and I’ve therefore been discussing the subject with people in our industry and across the UK and US outside our sector. ( And my advertising sample size is a lot more than 35!).


The book is still in development of course, but one senior person in the movie industry believes firmly that Hollywood both sets a tone for our culture and reflects it.  He felt that the issue about gender equality is not merely a work issue but a cultural one.  That one can’t be changed until the other does, and that movies are a barometer of society’s attitude to gender.


He told me about the Bechdel test, which started as a satirical cartoon and is now widely used to judge the gender bias of movies.


There are just 3 criteria to pass.  It has to have at least two women in it, who talk to each other, about something besides a man.


It’s a surprisingly hard test to pass.  And of course surprisingly easy to pass if you reverse the criteria (two men, talk to each other, about something besides a woman).  Sure there are loads of those – most of my favourite movies and probably yours.  The number of my favourite movies that pass the true Bechdel test ?  Somewhat fewer, especially if you mandate movies from the last 20 years as this has got worse not better.


The last two brilliant movies I saw at the cinema don’t pass (The Lunchbox and Blue Ruin if you’re interested).


In fact I can’t think of a recent movie I’ve seen that does pass.  The punchline of the original Bechdel cartoon published in 1985 portrays one woman saying to the other : “Pretty strict, but a good idea”. To which the other replies with a smile : “No kidding, the last movie I was able to see was Alien”.


Whether you’re alpha male or female, whether you think we work in an industry with gender bias or in a meritocracy, next time you watch a movie apply the Bechdel test to it.  Keep a count.  It’s an interesting exercise, and so far my count skews dramatically in one direction.


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