Speaking to a crowd of hundreds at the Iowa Women Lead Change Central Iowa Conference in Des Moines last week, Oscar-winning actor Geena Davis reinforced the statistic that at our current rate of progress, it will take hundreds of years to reach gender parity at significant levels.

However, there is one area where gender parity can be achieved overnight, she said.

"As a mom in the 21st century, I discovered there are far more males than females in child programming and movies made for kids," Davis told those in attendance, citing that currently, females make up only 17 percent of characters in this type of programming. "What if we’re … training our children to see that 17 percent as normal? In a world that’s slightly more than half female, what we’re showing girls is they are far less valuable than boys."

Davis is the founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which engages film and television creators to dramatically increase the percentages of female characters and reduce gender stereotyping in media made for children 11 and under. 

Davis said her role in the film "Thelma and Louise" changed her outlook on the roles she chose to play.

"I have a profound interest on how women and girls are portrayed on screen," she said. "(The film) really brought home for me how few opportunities we give women to feel inspired by female characters — to feel empowered and excited. Ever since then, I keep that in mind. What will women think about my character?"

Those opportunities are still few, Davis said, because however abysmal progress is in real life, "it’s far worse in fiction."

"We’re training children from the beginning to see that women and girls do not take up half the space and, as a result, girls’ self esteem goes down and boys' goes up," she said. "That’s why I choose to focus on what they see first, to show them from the beginning rather than trying to fix the bias later."

Media can be the cure for itself, Davis said, for the problem it created, by offering more role models girls can emulate. Davis called it the "CSI Effect," referring to the uptick of females interested in forensic science, spurred by strong female characters working in the field on screen in the popular TV series. 

"If they can see it, they can be it," she said. "The time for change is now."