Jess Jacobs, 25
Actress and Co-Founder of Invisible Pictures
In Hollywood, withstanding bias, sexism and ridicule is an everyday occurrence for women, given men’s executive positions in the industry. Actress Jess Jacobs, for one, was 24 when she started feeling a lack of respect from the companies she was auditioning for. “I was reading scripts where women characters were passive recipients of the world around them rather than active participants in it,” says Jacobs, who then launched a female-led, female-sourced production outfit of her own. “I wanted to use content creation and my experience as a storyteller to change the narrative.”
1. What made you choose this career path? What has been your greatest achievement?
I have worked as an actor since I was 15, so it’s really the only job I’ve ever known. As I’ve grown in the industry and as a woman, I have found empathy to be a critical trait, and being an actor is being a professional empathizer. My job is to put myself in other people’s shoes, to find the humanity in even the most difficult of individuals. However, after a number of years and a number of exciting successes, I was looking around and finding myself often feeling uninspired. I was watching women’s stories turned into niche films and television. I was reading scripts where women characters were passive recipients of the world around them rather than active participants in it. So it became obvious rather quickly: I wanted to use content creation and my experience as a storyteller to change the narrative and work towards bringing underrepresented communities who have been made invisible by systems and institutions around the world into the mainstream. And so Invisible Pictures was born. Between being an actor and being a producer, I am honored to embody multiple stages of the storytelling process. My greatest achievement has been my contribution to the building of a space to make all of those things possible, always in community with other artists and producers and creative minds.
2. What’s the biggest criticism/stereotype/judgement you’ve faced in your career?
Ask any young woman in Hollywood, and they’ll tell you that some version of “you’re too…” is a daily occurrence. Actresses, especially, are subject to every judgement under the sun. I also have been told throughout my career numerous absurd things. Besides the classic “you’re too old for…” right after “you’re too young for…” and so on. I was once told that I was tough to cast because I “didn’t have a quirk, like frizzy red hair,” as if that physical “quirk” was somehow my missing link.
I think the spark for me, though, really came when I wanted to produce my own content because I was tired of reading passive women characters, and someone told me that I couldn’t be a producer and be taken seriously as an actor simultaneously so early in my career. I was told I was too unknown to make a difference. I was told I was too small to change things. I was told I couldn’t pursue two passions at the same time. So, of course, I knew I had to go out and do just that.
3. How did you #SWAAYthenarrative? What was the reaction by those who told you you “couldn’t” do it?
The biggest limitation I have faced in my career is the immense amount of unintentional sexism that seeps into content at all levels of the media, from small independent projects to major network TV shows. This kind of content is not only uninspiring to me as an individual, but also sends the message of disempowerment to all women who consume the content and internalize these messages around the world.
The biggest stereotype I have faced in my career is the fact that walking into rooms with heavy hitters as a young woman is often met with a twice up-and-down and a patronizing smile indicating an obvious lowering of expectations. A lot of these limitations and stereotypes led me, in more ways than one, to rely on other people to tell me how to live my life. The messaging I had received was that I was not in a position to own my power or to be a leader. I was waiting for someone to give me a shot, rather than standing up and building my life, my career and my passion for myself.
4. What did you learn through your personal journey?
I overcame the stereotypes and limitations I faced by looking at all of them as opportunities. Every obstacle was a chance to learn something, to take a risk, to show myself what I was capable of. If the stereotype says pretty women can’t be intelligent and successful in business, then I would be sure to put on my favorite outfit for a meeting. If the stereotype says young women can’t be trusted with important responsibilities, I would take on more than anyone thought I could handle and confirm myself capable. And as much as I’ve learned, I am still working everyday to approach things as a woman rather than trying to beat a man at a man’s game. As a millennial, I have an instinct for digital content which is so valuable in the industry today and finding a producing partner with an expertise in traditional media was, and is, so much more fulfilling than trying to act like I can do it all alone. Before my 25th birthday, I co-founded Invisible Pictures, with my producing partner, Emmy-nominated industry veteran and one of the most incredible women I know, Audrey Rosenberg. We are dedicated to authentic stories which are not normally represented or elevated in dominant culture.
5. What’s your number one piece of advice to women discouraged by preconceived notions and society’s limitations?
My one piece of advice: Do it anyway. Society’s limitations are perpetuated by our willingness to let them have power over us. Preconceived notions are only notions. Go make your own rules.
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.