Movies lack alpha females too
A view from Sue Unerman

Movies lack alpha females too

Last week, Campaign's Louise Ridley asked me to comment on a piece of research that 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 per cent.

 Not bad compared with some industries, great compared with the representation of women in the Cabinet, but hardly representative of either the UK population or the gender split at graduate-intake level.

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

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

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 three 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, who 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 – gender balance appears to have got worse, not better. The last two brilliant movies I saw at the cinema don't pass it (The Lunchbox and Blue Ruin, if you're interested).

In fact, I can't think of a recent movie I've seen that passes the test. 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. Last movie I was able to see was Alien."

Whether you're alpha male or alpha 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.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom