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Where is the She Wolf of Wall Street?

There are very few powerful businesswomen portrayed in film - but is this a reflection of the real business world?

In the history of film there are very few female characters portrayed in powerful, big business roles. Is this really a mirror to the corporate world, or just a failing in the movie-industry?

The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s contribution to a long roll call of movies featuring Wall Street wonders and all manner of ‘Mr Big’s, has left a tired old question hanging in the air.

Where are all the films about female power players?

With the likes of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, Hewlett-Packard’s Meg Whitman, IBM’s Virginia Rometty and Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi proudly sitting at the top their organisations in the real world, why do movies continue to favour the story of the male businessman?

From Charles Foster Kane to Gordon Gekko, the silver screen has had a long love affair with guys who are at the top of their game, and usually behaving badly with it.

Of course, they are fun to watch. The high-speed car crash of greed and aspiration (DiCaprio’s Belfort feels he is doing well enough to use wads of cash to anchor his 150ft yacht) is compelling, but there is something unsettling about this recurring image.

It has become an accepted filmic stereotype, but as the fortunes of women in business have changed enormously over the last two and a half decades, the sound of a yawning gap in the movie-world is becoming harder to ignore, and resonates with an uncomfortable truth.

It’s still not seen as acceptable, in films at least, to represent women who have actually ‘made it’ - and certainly not enjoying the spoils of their endeavours in a hedonistic fashion.

There are plenty of movies about women who are fighting their way up the ladder, or who are driving corporate change – Norma Rae (1979), 9 to 5 (1980), Working Girl (1988) and Erin Brockovich (2000) to name a few. 

And there is the odd film where a guy might work to challenge existing power structures in his business (Jerry Maguire strikes a pretty lonely figure here though).

What we are largely missing, however, is a movie where the female is the power, and the audience can enjoy the ride and the flush of her success from curtain-up to credits.

It’s still not seen as acceptable, in films at least, to represent women who have actually ‘made it’ - and certainly not enjoying the spoils of their endeavours in a hedonistic fashion.

“Amanda Priestly!” you may cry. And yes, Meryl Streep’s flint-eyed media boss in The Devil Wears Prada (2006) did, more than loosely, represent the real-life editor-in-chief of American Vogue.

But she hardly looked like she was enjoying her success – or even making the most of it. Rather, she made the working lives of others around her a misery, as she kept the secret of her broken marriage and dysfunctional home-life.

What we can see though, throughout Hollywood’s history, are female characters running small businesses.

It’s Complicated (2009) sees Meryl Streep running a successful bakery, Chocolat (2000) has Juliette Binoche opening a chocolate shop in a sleepy French village, in You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan runs a book shop and Dolly Parton runs a beauty parlour in Steel Magnolias (1989).

A wearying trend for women running catering businesses continues with Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) and Mystic Pizza (1988).

Bizarrely, going further back, gender stereotypes are less obvious. Vivien Leigh runs her husband’s lumber business in Gone with the Wind and in Heat Lightning (1984) Aline MacMahon runs a gas station. In They All Kissed the Bride (1942), Joan Crawford runs a trucking company and in Lucy Gallant (1955), Jane Wyman starts a clothing line and conducts business with investors and eventually expands globally.

On the whole though, women are not appearing in our movies as high achievers with entrepreneurial and collaborative skills, and this does not reflect what is really going on.

Julie Weeks, president and CEO of Womenable, a consultancy working to improve the environment for women-owned enterprises worldwide. recently uncovered some enlightening statistics when she asked the U.S. Census for data on how women-owned businesses have been doing, profit-wise over the last decade. 

What was uncovered is that not only have 2% of these companies passed the $1 million in sales, but that at the highest end of reported earnings (ie. over $10 million in annual revenue) – the number of female owned firms as grown by 56.6% since 2002. That’s 47% higher than the 38.4% increase for all £10+ businesses regardless of gender.

“As someone who watches women in business closely, we’re seeing this growth in practice. We know there are more economically substantial women-owned firms, so for years the frustration has been why isn’t that being captured by the Census? Now that we have this data—it’s actually a wonderfully vindicating experience.” said Weeks in an interview with Forbes.com

If there are no strong female business characters being portrayed, then this is just another example of a male dominated industry steering clear of what, within its ranks, is sadly still considered an unsavoury situation – a woman succeeding at the helm. 

Audiences respond to the mirror that the movies hold up to the world, and if there are no strong business women strutting their stuff on the screen – it remains the duty of mothers to tell their daughters about how Anita Roddick built a global cosmetics business, or how Oprah Winfrey rose from true poverty to become a global communicator and launch her own media empire Harpo, and that there are tribes of women following suit all around the world, right now.

Sheryl Sandberg’s key message in her trail-blazing book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Succeed was that female achievement in the workplace is hugely dependent on striking an attitude and acting on it. This positive stance is all about taking risks and seizing opportunities and not always following a linear path.

Isn’t it about time that our film directors and producers adopt this very same attitude, break from the pack and give us some movies with some money-spinning, business-savvy leading ladies? 

I’d pay to see that.

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Nicky Tatley

About the author

Nicky contributes articles to all titles in the Dynamis stable, primarily BusinessesForSale.com, FranchiseSales.com and PropertySales.com and is a regular contributor to other business publications including Talk Business, Bdaily.co.uk and NuWire Investor.

@Be_TheBoss

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