What can bankers in formal wear learn from an actress who made her name in Hollywood playing a free-spirited, Thunderbird-driving outlaw?
Quite a bit, it turns out.
Speaking Thursday at American Banker's annual Most Powerful Women in Banking dinner, Geena Davis — star of the 1991 film "Thelma & Louise" — said that the way women in banking are portrayed on film affects their career trajectory.
It's an issue of "unconscious bias," Davis said, describing deeply held assumptions about gender norms. If women are not represented on-screen in positions of power — as executives rather than secretaries, for example — it reinforces gender stereotypes about what power and influence look like.
Lack of strong female role models in the popular culture also makes a lasting impression on young women who may dream of a career in financial services, she said.
"Media images have always been had a very strong impact on how girls see themselves, their ambitions and their aspirations," Davis said.
The dinner was held at Cipriani in Midtown Manhattan, site of the old Bowery Savings Bank, which was sold during the savings-and-loan crisis and is now, several deals later, part of Capital One. Many of the bank's antique teller windows are still in standing, and, on Thursday, they looked over a room filled with candlelit tables and sparkling gowns.
Davis has spent her career playing characters with a mix of career ambition and moxie. In the 1992 movie "A League of Their Own" she played Dottie, a woman from a farm in Oregon who is recruited to play for a professional baseball league during World War II.
She also portrayed the nation's first woman president, on the widely praised but short-lived TV series "Commander in Chief," in 2005. The show only ran for one season, but research has shown that it made viewers more likely to vote for a female presidential candidate, according to Davis.
"I have had a lot of experience with how powerful media images can be in shaping cultural norms," Davis said.
The Academy Award-winning actress said she became particularly concerned about the dearth of women characters on screen when her daughter was young. She noticed that there were few women characters in children's programming, and she began to worry about the unconscious impressions it was making.
Her concern inspired her to launch the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, with the backing of Mount Saint Mary's University in Los Angeles. The organization, established nearly a decade ago, advocates for gender parity in entertainment for young children.
During her speech Thursday, Davis announced that her institute is launching a new research initiative — in partnership with American Banker and sponsored by Zions Bank — to analyze how women in financial services are represented in the media.
Over the coming year, the institute will survey women in the industry to find out which characters on TV and film have inspired them.
The institute will also survey the general public about their perceptions of diversity in financial services. And it will analyze films from the past few years, to look at how Hollywood has portrayed women in the banking business.
"This will help us understand common traits that make an indelible impression on people in your industry," Davis said.
Throughout her speech, Davis shared stories about her career in Hollywood.
Playing Thelma opened her eyes to the importance of gender representation in Hollywood, she said.
"That's the film that made me realize how important it is to have women see female characters that they could aspire to be like," Davis said (though she acknowledged that Thelma and Louise may not be perfect role models, given that they "kill a guy, drive drunk and have sex with strangers"). The ratio of male to female characters on film is currently the same today as it was in 1946, she said.
Davis said she still gets approached by young girls who tell her that "A League of Their Own," which will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year, inspired them to play sports.
The movie inspired her to play sports, as well, Davis said. A few years after it came out, she took up archery.
It was more than a hobby. Davis, who was 41 at the time, became obsessed with the sport. After two and a half years, she was named a semifinalist for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.
"It's just that I take everything too far — whatever I get interested in, I want to go to the Olympics in it, whatever it is," Davis said, as the audience of bankers laughed.