Madeline Di Nonno’s Path to Changing Gender Representation in Media

By Katrina Scalise (COM’25) and Emilia Wisniewski (COM’25)
Madeline Di Nonno
Madeline Di Nonno (CAS’82)

Madeline Di Nonno (CAS’82) has ascended to high-ranking jobs throughout her career. From ABC to Universal Studios Home Entertainment, she has been a powerful figure in the media and entertainment industries— but decided to leave those behind to focus on uplifting women’s voices in storytelling.

For the past fourteen years as President and CEO of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, a nonprofit research organization that advocates for equal gender representation in media, she partners with entertainment and media decision makers to help them become changemakers from utilizing the ground-breaking research at the Institute, or through consulting on films and TV shows centered around gender, diversity and inclusion. 

Di Nonno noticed early on that women were not being represented accurately in the media. As an only child and a first-generation student, she “scoured” for role models to guide her. She found characters on TV to be the most inspiring, from Emma Peel in 1960s “The Avengers” and Ann Marie in the 1966 sitcom “That Girl.”

“[Ann Marie] was in New York City and she wasn’t looking to get married, she was a career girl, and I was like, ‘I want to be her,’” Di Nonno said. 

When she came to BU, Di Nonno played for the women’s soccer team, in addition to reforming the cheerleading squad, after having a background in cheer in high school.

“I had absolutely no intention of following that path when I hit BU. However, I noticed that the [cheerleading] team that they did have wasn’t modern, and it wasn’t on a collegiate level with other NCAA type universities,” she said. “So I turned the cheerleading squad, which was all female at the time, into a collegiate team.”

As she navigated her early career moves in her undergraduate years, Di Nonno interned in the summers at ABC as a “floater,” serving in different kinds of administrative roles, which allowed her to try her hand at documentaries, news, sports broadcasting and PR. She went on to accept a position at ABC post-grad, chasing a career in media and entertainment.

She pursued roles with Universal Studios Home Entertainment, and climbed the corporate ladder to executive roles at the Hallmark Channel, Nielsen Entertainment, and Anchor Bay Entertainment.

Di Nonno said while serving as the CEO for an emerging digital agency she recognized it was not the “right opportunity” for her. That experience led her to switching to the nonprofit sector. 

“I reached a high level of success as a CEO, and it wasn’t the right opportunity for me and I realized that I wanted to pivot,” Di Nonno said. “I thought, ‘can I stay in entertainment? Or can I use my power for good?’”

In 2009, Di Nonno joined fellow BU alumna and two-time Academy Award-winning Actor Geena Davis (CFA’79, HON.’99) to expand the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Despite attending BU at the same time, the two had not met until Di Nonno was making her transition into nonprofit work. She networked with Davis and met to discuss ideas and strategies.

“I asked Geena what she wanted and she said she wanted world domination,” Di Nonno said.

Di Nonno credits Davis’ vision as the foundation for the Institute. The nonprofit, whose slogan is “if they can see it, they can be it,” conducts research, collaborates with the entertainment industry, and aims to inspire content creators towards gender equality, fostering inclusion and reducing negative stereotyping in entertainment media, according to a statement by the Institute.

“[The Institute] is looking at how media and entertainment can inspire, engage, and for example, be a window into the world of work,” Di Nonno said. “We look at who’s showing up on screen, how are they showing up, do they have a sense of agency, do they have a job, are they in a position of power, are girls engaging in STEM, how are caregivers portrayed.”

The Institute uses two specific research tools for its pre and post-production evaluation of media content: the Geena Davis Inclusion Quotient (GD-IQ) and Spellcheck for Bias, as the only public data institute to consistently analyze the representation of six kinds of identities: gender, race and ethnicity, LGBTQIA+, disability, age 50+, and body type.

In 2020, the Geena Davis Institute’s research found that for the first time, female lead characters achieve parity in the top-100 grossing family films, and the percentage of female lead characters in family films doubled from 2007 to 2019.

Di Nonno claims that this rise in gender parity on screen was brought about in part by the Institute’s method of using research and data for advocacy which inspired the media and entertainment industries to change.

In 2022, the Institute was named a recipient of the Governor’s Award at the 74th Annual Emmy Awards. The honorary Emmy Award recognized their “efforts to promote gender balance and foster inclusion throughout the entertainment industry,” according to the Television Academy.

For Di Nonno, making the switch to nonprofit advocacy work was worth it.

“It’s so gratifying to hear people’s stories about how they’re so grateful for our work,” she said. “Hearing from parents about how invaluable the research is, how it has taught them how to be an immediate literacy advocate for their own children. That’s what’s deeply, deeply moving, as well as having the industry embrace us.”

Di Nonno and Davis fuel the Institute’s research findings into gender equity-focused entertainment projects they produce. She and Davis are Executive Producers behind the CBS TV show “Mission Unstoppable”(2019—) with host Miranda Cosgrove, which profiles women in STEM, and a documentary “This Changes Everything”(2018) that shed light on the discrimination of women in the film and television industry.

“A lot of people weren’t aware of the bigger picture of historical discrimination against women in Hollywood, on screen or behind the camera, and it really distills it in a way that’s very digestible,” Di Nonno said. “[The documentary] has been a great platform to raise awareness.”

Di Nonno has stayed involved with her alma mater personally and via the Institute. She mentors students at BU Los Angeles, donates to the women’s soccer and cheerleading teams, and drives Geena Davis Institute collaborations with BU, including speaking events and its former partnership with BU’s College of Communication for its “Guess Who?” gender inequality educational video series.  

Di Nonno will be speaking at the COMtalk: Film, TV and Gender event at the Boston University College of Communication on Wednesday, October 11, at 3 pm. Alongside BU COM alumni and professors, she will discuss the current state of gender equality, inclusion and stereotyping  in the entertainment media industry.