It’s impossible to read reviews or tweets about the latest Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, and not see praise for the lead character Rey (played by Daisy Ridley)—a lone young woman surviving as a scavenger on a desert planet. Plenty of reviews, including Fast Company‘s, quote Rey’s line from a scene in which Finn, a defecting stormtrooper (played by John Boyega), tries to take her hand to lead her from danger: “I know how to run without you holding my hand!”
Rey isn’t a token of diversity in the film. Women heroes and villains are all over the movie. Leia (Carrie Fisher), already a capable character, has further progressed in the three decades since Return of the Jedi. She’s the general leading the resistance against a new fascist-style enemy called the First Order. One of the main villains is icy chief stormtrooper Captain Phasma, played by Gwendoline Christie. In her travels, Rey encounters Maz Kanata, the 1,000-year-old pirate and keeper of an interstellar truck stop. A CGI character voiced by Lupita Nyong’o, Maz doesn’t possess the Force, but she understands it well, and, a bit like a female Yoda, Maz helps Rey realize her potential.
Yet The Force Awakens is not a feminist movie. “[Rey] struck me as very, very natural,” says Brianna Wu, cofounder and CEO of video game developer Giant Spacekat, and a big Star Wars fan. “It seems very natural that she would have the skills needed to survive in that environment.” Strong female (and non-white) characters certainly have not hurt the film, which is closing in on $2 billion in revenues in less than a month. That puts it in striking distance of the $3.4 billion, adjusted for inflation, earned by the most successful film ever, Gone With the Wind—another story led by a woman.
But as the opening to the film reminds us, Star Wars takes place in a galaxy far, far away. Plenty of statistics show that women have not made it as far in this galaxy’s work environments, and they often face hostility. Wu has become an expert on the topic. As one of the few female game developers, and an outspoken one, she has received vitriolic online attacks, including hundreds of death threats on Twitter, for pointing out inequality in both the fictional world of games and the real world of the gaming business. “You look at the top positions in any game studio,” says Wu. “And everything from art director to engineering lead to even QA—it’s almost always dominated by men.” (A glance at the senior management for major games publishers like Tencent or Electronic Arts show few or no women, and those who do appear often head up HR.)
That pattern of exclusion carries into the overall tech industry and to business as a whole. Just five major tech firms are headed by women. A November 2015 report by S&P Capital IQ counted only 21 female CEOs in the entire Fortune 500.
“Unfortunately what we’ve seen around women’s representation in the . . . Fortune 500 and S&P 500 . . . we’ve seen that women in leadership really has stagnated,” says Julie Nugent, a VP at Catalyst, a nonprofit research institute covering women in the workplace. Catalyst has been tracking women’s roles in senior management since 1995. “We see that those numbers are largely unchanged,” she says.
In 2015, Apple publicly released its annual diversity filing to the federal government. In an introductory letter, CEO Tim Cook wrote, “Some people will read this page and see our progress. Others will recognize how much farther we have to go. We see both.” Microsoft’s 2015 diversity report showed a slight backsliding for women in both tech positions and the company overall (and stagnation for African-Americans and Latinos). Of Google’s 25 senior officials, just four were women in 2015 (all of them white).
Phasma has done better in the ultra-conservative corporate environment of the First Order than many of her counterparts on Earth. Still, the First Order has some of the same limits, for example, in visibility and celebrating diversity. Like most of the First Order employees—and unlike her managers, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson)—Phasma never removes her helmet. “The only people whose faces you really see working with the First Order are men,” says Jennifer Thorpe-Moscon, a research director at Catalyst. “You don’t see that in the Resistance. Everybody is welcome,” she says. “And I think the Resistance is going to succeed for that very reason. They are open to and accepting of and seeking out talent of all backgrounds.”
Exclusion isn’t just a problem with big, old companies on Earth. A 2014 study by Babson College found that, between 2011 and 2013, about 15% of the companies receiving venture capital funding had women on the executive team. Only 2.7% of funded companies had a woman CEO. “It really more parallels what you need to do when dealing with corporate life,” says author and entrepreneurial coach Pamela Slim about working in the male-dominated world of VC funding. According to a study by the Kaufman Foundation, the share of new entrepreneurs who are women dropped from 43.7% in 1996 to 36.8% in 2014.
That’s not to say there has been no progress since 1983’s Return of the Jedi. Public diversity reports didn’t even exist for many tech companies a few years ago, and major businesses had long fought to keep secret the employment stats they are required to file to the federal government. In Babson’s first study in 1999, only 5% of VC-funded companies had women executives. And 20 years ago, there were zero women CEOs in the Fortune 500, reports the Pew Research Center.
Women made up just 22% of senior managers in 2014, according to Pew, yet they held 52.2% of all managerial and professional jobs, at least providing plenty of candidates for promotion. Women also accounted for about 17% of Fortune 500 board members—a small minority, but up from less than 10% in 1995, according to Catalyst.
Women are slowly progressing in pop culture, too. “I saw a lot of similarities . . . between Rey and Katniss from The Hunger Games—that extremely strong fighter, young female lead,” says Nugent. (In real life, actor Jennifer Lawrence has become a reluctant spokesperson for combatting unequal pay in Hollywood.) Rey has a counterpart in the hypermale world of video games, says Wu, with the new Lara Croft starting in the 2013 edition of hit franchise Tomb Raider. “Lara Croft started in the ’90s as this kind of hypersexualized . . . large-breasted video game character. It was designed for sex appeal,” says Wu.
The new Lara is complex and nuanced—still hot, but with a plausible figure and relatable female emotions. Distributor Square Enix describes the game as covering Lara’s “ascent from a frightened young woman to a hardened survivor.” She’s the handiwork of Tomb Raider‘s chief writer, Rhianna Pratchett—a real-life example of women’s slow progress in video games. “This is a very new development in the game industry, to take one of the biggest sex symbols in our history and turn her into just—a person,” says Wu, whose iOS game, Revolution 60, is coming to PCs in January or February. (The women’s figures and clothing are far from modest in the game, but the women are clearly in charge.)
Even big old companies are talking about change, say Nugent and Thorpe-Moscon. Most of Catalyst’s member organizations are large corporations that want to improve diversity, they say. “We do, indeed, see leading-edge organizations and ones that are raising the bar for women,” says Nugent. Since 1987, Catalyst has been giving out awards to companies that do the most to promote diversity. “Last year, in fact, we had Procter & Gamble and Chevron Corporation that won the award,” she says. “It’s very diverse across industry, and we do see cutting-edge examples in even the male-dominated industries.”
There are also more opportunities to follow Rey’s example and go solo. Slim, author of Escape from Cubicle Nation, recognizes in Rey the “solopreneurs” who start small companies alone, bootstrapping the effort with their own money. “There’s this kind of whole resurgence of the self-made, bootstrapping person, which is more of what I saw in that character [Rey],” says Slim. “You know, using what she has around her to be really thrifty about it.” No one recruited Rey for a role in the Resistance. She got involved by mistake, but then had to take initiative in order to survive.
It’s not so different on Earth. “I see, you know, twentysomethings that are foregoing the corporate track altogether and jumping into entrepreneurship,” says Slim. She also works with people in their 40s and 50s—General Leia’s age—leaving corporate careers to start their own ventures. It’s not just women: Slim thinks that both genders are becoming small entrepreneurs in roughly equal numbers. These self-starters are more common than most people realize, says Slim, because solopreneurs aren’t covered much in major business publications.
Women certainly have the education to take on big roles: Since the late ’90s they have been outpacing men in college graduation. By 2013, 37% of women aged 25-29 were earning at least a bachelor’s degree, versus 30% of men those ages. And Slim says that young women, at least the ones she works with, have confidence in their abilities. “I just remember a couple of times during the film where [Rey] realizes she has . . . some of those Jedi powers,” says Slim. “I get to see some of those moments.”