Bias remains a constant factor embedded within the psyche of each and every one of us, regardless of our individual aspirations towards open- mindedness and liberal thought.
This was the premise for a panel discussion held in Beverly Hills at the Writers Guild Theater on April 20. Among those participating were actress/producer Geena Davis, founder/chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media which presented the event in tandem with the Writers Guild; moderator Glen Mazzara, producer/writer of “The Shield” and “The Walking Dead;” director/producer Todd Holland of “Malcolm in the Middle;” Academy Award-winning screenwriter Callie Khouri who scripted “Thelma and Louise;” producer/writer Peter Paige of “Queer as Folk;” creator/executive producer extraordinaire Shonda Rhimes of “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” and “How to Get Away with Murder;” and Judith Williams, diversity programs manager at Google.
As fitting her status as a member of Mensa (the high intelligence society open to people tested at the 98th percentile or above) with an IQ of 140, Davis started off with a power point presentation, with facts and figures to support her argument that society has determined that “girls and women are less valuable than boys and men.”
Noting that starring roles in Hollywood film productions have been at the same gender ratio since 1946, Davis estimated that at this rate of progress, the entertainment industry will likely “… achieve parity in 700 years.”
Continuing, she offered the opinion that entertainment, and specifically the art of the moving image, has a special ability to accelerate the process, reasoning that “on screen you can (effect) change more quickly.”
“If they see it, they can be it,” she maintained in reference to the impact film and television can have on young girls’ self esteem.
“I’m talking about showing the real world—I’m not talking about some experiment,” Davis said.
Judith Williams, who holds bachelor and doctoral degrees from Harvard and Stanford, has been an author, university professor (Howard, Kansas, and Tufts), and consultant on diversity and human resource issues throughout Canada, the United States, Australia, Portugal, and South Africa. She opened her part of the talk by explaining that unconscious bias is an inclination nurtured as a production of evolution, as a necessary evil, and she pointed out that humans receive some 11 million bits of data per second, while being able to process a mere 4 bits.
Bias, therefore has a purpose, she believes: it developed as a survival mechanism. In due course, bias became “hardwired” into the human consciousness.
Williams said our forebearers developed the knack for associating (dangerous) things with other (dangerous) things, in order to recognize possible threats early on. This pattern of associating (menacing) “islands of sameness” evolved into a pattern which is hard to break. Hence, we have the birth of labeling and stereotypes. In the dramatic or performing arts, this has resulted in the phenomenon of “typecasting,” where a performer might become so identified with a type of character that it is hard for others to see them as anything other than the role they are so strongly associated with.
As applied to gender roles, Williams carries this notion into the bastion of business, suggesting that women have been so often linked to subservience that it inhibits their professional progression on their career path.
Williams made headlines when she “called out” Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt for repeatedly (and rudely) interrupting the United States Chief Technology Officer, Megan J. Smith, during a panel discussion at last month’s South by Southwest (SxSW) entertainment/technology/cultural festival in Austin, Texas. Williams, was taken aback by Schmidt’s refusal to let Smith be heard during a talk on diversity and the inclusion of minorities and women in the tech industry workforce.
During the Q & A after the discussion, Smith responded to Williams’ inquiry about being the only woman on the panel and being habitually talked over by men by saying that it was an occurrence commonly experienced by herself and other women, even when they hold powerful positions, as well as having their ideas “appropriated” by male colleagues who then present the concepts as their own.
Others on the panel weighed in on their culpability in this area, including Paige who says he was accountable for his own issues of “male entitlement.”
Rhimes referenced her experiences in developing prime time series’ that attempt “… to reflect society’s reality.”
“It’s really interesting when you (try to) change the flow of traffic,” she alluded to the challenge of going against the grade of programming trends.
Rhimes is partial to diversity as an instrument in effecting change, and expressed her belief that “… a room full of middle class White guys can only solve the problems of middle class White guys.”
“There’s something really scary about the homogeny (in Hollywood) when you have the same (type of) people in a room,” she said.
To encourage “the flowering of different ideas,” Rhimes believes in a bit of dissent within her writing staff, expressing her distaste for people who always agree with her.
Needless to say, the discussion spawned considerable debate during the reception that followed. The crowd assembled displayed a good mixture of both genders and various ethnicities. Time will tell if the ideas imparted during the evening will manifest into tangible progress.