The heroine of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is a girl named Rey. Princess Leia is now General Leia in the new film. And as the film's marketing machine rolls out BB-8 purses and Stormtrooper necklaces -- though female action figures are hard to find in the toy aisles -- girls are clearly seen as the key to growing franchise gold.
Yet there's another powerful role women are playing in the Star Wars juggernaut. Lucasfilm, the force behind the series' sci-fi geek enterprise, has been headed by a woman, producer Kathleen Kennedy, since 2012, when she was selected to succeed founder George Lucas. (Lucasfilm was bought by Disney in 2012.) Its general manager, also listed among the studio's top three executives, is a woman. And Lucasfilm's development lead, vice president of marketing, and executive in charge of the mobile, online and console games business are also all women.
All in all, 10 of the 19 top executives listed on Lucasfilm's web site -- or more than 50 percent -- are female. That number dwarfs the typical percentage of women in the executive suite. Recent figures put the average proportion of top management seats held by women at 15 to 25 percent, depending on how far down the corporate ladder one considers when doing the math.
Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, said in an e-mail to On Leadership that Lucasfilm's percentage is unusual for the film industry, too. Lauzen, who conducts research on women in both on-screen roles and behind-the-scene set jobs, such as directors or cinematographers, said she's also done an informal survey of the number of female executives at the studios. Those have found that women typically hold about one-third of those jobs.
"Clearly, [Lucasfilm] has both an awareness of the issue and a dedication to do something about it," she said.
Kennedy has said as much. At the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in October, she spoke openly in an on-stage interview about how many women still aren't in certain film industry jobs. Noting that 50 percent of her executive team is female, as well as that six of the eight people in her "story group" are women, she said "I’m sure there’s a lot of people who would be surprised we’re making 'Star Wars' movies and the majority of the people involved in the development of those stories are women. I think that it’s making a huge difference in the stories that we’re trying to tell."
Kennedy -- who was quarterback of her high school football team and started her career as a camera operator for a local TV station before going to work with Steven Spielberg and later, Lucas -- conveyed her frustration over the low numbers of women in the industry. Relaying a recent experience sitting in the audience at a Saturday Night Live taping, she said she noticed there were still no women operating cameras or serving as stage managers. "It’s completely unacceptable," she said.
Asked why so little has changed, she proposed that it might have to do with unions, but told the Fortune audience "I'm not sure I completely understand, other than the fact there are people involved in powerful positions who are just not trying hard enough to make opportunities available that were made to me over 35 years ago."
Kennedy, of course, is now in one of those powerful positions, and she seems keen on using it. She's trying to hire more women in executive positions -- she credited Disney, which bought Lucasfilm in 2012, with supporting those efforts -- bringing in women like former screenwriter Kiri Hart, who leads the story department at Lucasfilm. She also believes she'll hire a woman to direct a Star Wars movie eventually. "I have no doubt," she told the audience in October.
That kind of talk by powerful women such as Kennedy could be what finally disrupts things for women in the film industry, according to Lauzen. "When we talk about the film studios, I suspect that many of these women are acutely aware that they work in a male-dominated environment and try to 'blend in' or avoid calling attention to their gender," she noted. "However, as more high-profile women speak out about the gender inequities in the business, it may make it more comfortable for these executives to challenge the dominant ideologies and status quo in their organizations."
May the force, as they say, be with them.