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October 6, 2015

Why Is Television Losing Women Writers? Veteran Producers Weigh In

by Maureen Ryan, posted Sep 8th 2011 11:00AM
As the fall TV season approaches, it's worth taking a closer look at the people who have created and written the scripted fare you'll see.

In the 2006-2007 television season, 35 percent of the writers of broadcast network, prime-time programs were women, according to an annual study by San Diego State University's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. In the 2010-2011 season, that number had dropped by more than half, to 15 percent. What happened?

Since the latest edition of the annual SDSU study came out two weeks ago, I've posed that question to a dozen experienced television writers and creators, female and male alike. Most of these professionals, who've worked on everything from 'Battlestar Galactica' to 'Sons of Anarchy' to 'Pushing Daisies' to 'Chuck,' were alarmed by the numbers that the Center released.

For some, it confirmed their worst fears. "The situation is getting worse," said one veteran woman writer. "In the '90s, the networks cared more. They don't anymore." For others, it made them re-evaluate gains they thought women had made. "I had certainly perceived the situation as getting better and better for women -- I am rarely the only woman in the writers' room anymore, and I encounter more women at the higher levels," said Jane Espenson ('Once Upon a Time,' 'Torchwood,' 'Buffy,' 'Battlestar Galactica'). "I remember what it was like 20 years ago, and this is not that."

Today, everyone seems to agree in principle that diversity is desirable for a whole host of reasons, some of them pragmatic. "Overall, I've found that an equal mix of estrogen and testosterone in the writers' room -- and, indeed, with the support staff -- make for the best working environment for both genders," said Marc Guggenheim ('No Ordinary Family,' 'Eli Stone,' 'Brothers and Sisters'.) "A good working environment equals, in my opinion (though Lord knows there're plenty of examples to prove me wrong), good television."

"A balanced writers room is like a balanced world. Everyone thrives, good work gets done, people like each other and the show is better for it," said an experienced female writer who did not want to be named (let's call her Writer A). "Women keep the room moving. They're great at multitasking and getting along with others. They don't procrastinate and they open up with lots of personal anecdotes that make for great stories on the show and great character beats. They tend to smell good."

But the SDSU study isn't the only one showing that progress for women writers has, at best, stalled. According to statistics compiled by the Writers Guild of America, in 1999, 26 percent of working writers in cable and broadcast were women. By 2009, that number had risen by a mere 2 percent (and that was before the sharp decline recorded by the SDSU study). Moreover, between 2000 and 2009, "the earnings gap between women and white males [had] nearly quadrupled (from $4,735 to $17,343)."

"With women comprising a majority of the television viewing audience, this doesn't make much sense. You would think it would be an advantage to have greater numbers of women on staff," said Shawn Ryan ('The Chicago Code,' 'Terriers,' 'The Shield').

Asked to explain these worrying trends, the writers I spoke to offered various interpretations, ranging from economic pressures to old-fashioned sexism. Taken together, their observations paint a nuanced picture of a professional environment that's as stubbornly resistant to change as any in America.

The Economic Factor

The stagnant economy of the last several years affects hiring decisions in peculiar ways, some of which may prove especially detrimental to women.

"If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say that the size of writing staffs and the number of job opportunities for TV writers have been shrinking since the [2007-2008] writers' strike and the start of the recession," Guggenheim said. "While that wouldn't explain the disproportionate decrease percentage-wise, my instinct is that when jobs are harder to come by, it's minorities -- including women -- who are disproportionately impacted."

And old-school attitudes can inform hiring decisions, according to Nell Scovell ('Warehouse 13,' 'NCIS,' 'Sabrina the Teenage Witch'). "Anecdotally, I think in hard economic times, there's a misconception that men are still the breadwinners, i.e., 'If you give a woman a job, she's only supporting herself, but if you give a man a job, he'll support an entire family.' This is far from the truth."

The networks' and studios' desire for a "security blanket" in uncertain times is also a factor. Ask any television writer or critic: When we read about projects that the networks are developing or greenlighting, the names of the same male producers (and their proteges) crop up again and again.

"I think networks are panicking a little," said Amy Berg ('Eureka,' 'Leverage'). "With the emergence of digital media, no one is quite sure where the television industry is headed. How long will it be before content is created and distributed exclusively online? I think this, along with the country's current economic instability, is making networks reach for their security blankets. They're buying content from familiar faces with proven track records instead of taking risks with fresh voices. And if you're a veteran of this industry, chances are you're also a dude."

'Terra Nova' may well be emblematic of the current state of television drama. It's a big-budget, action-adventure series from big names -- among them Steven Spielberg and former Fox executive Peter Chernin -- and it has a whopping 12 executive producers. Two of them are female, and though 'Terra Nova' is being pitched in part as a family show, neither of those women is creatively guiding the project on a day-to-day basis (the project's showrunners are veteran writer/producers Rene Echevarria and Brannon Braga).

The Woman in the Room

In some quarters, there's still the perception that if a show has one woman writer on staff and perhaps one writer of color, that program's commitment to diversity is fulfilled (about 10 percent of working writers are minorities, according to the WGA, and that number has not budged for many years). But several woman pointed out that those writers are often the junior ones in the room, and they say it's not unusual for those writers to stay on the lower rungs of writing staffs for years rather than be promoted to positions of greater responsibility.

"If women aren't hired to write on staff they can't be mentored. They can't gain experience and they can't move up and then ultimately create their own show. They can't have overall deals" with studios, Writer A said. "They are essentially shut out of the process. We are seeing the effects now of women being shut out of the process."

The women who do get hired aren't particularly keen on being thought of as "the woman writer." As Ali Adler ('No Ordinary Family,' 'Chuck') put it, "During staffing season, you'll hear people say: 'We're looking for an upper-level female writer,' versus [a female writer] just being the best and brightest and shiniest non-gender specific penny in the bunch."

Being the only one of anything can certainly be an anxiety-inducing situation. Writer A recalled working for a show that fired its sole female writer every few months. "Being the only woman in a writers' room is like walking around with a target on your back," she said.

One male showrunner who has made strenuous (and successful) efforts to have a racially diverse writers' room remains frustrated that he still only has one woman on staff, and he said he's been thinking a lot about what it must be like for that woman.

"When you reach a critical mass of guys, you realize, even if you add women, it's still a very male culture, and that may not be the working style that the woman is used to or most comfortable with," noted that showrunner (let's call him Writer B). In that male culture, a woman may be less willing and able to offer ideas and pitches that come from their personal experience. (It also produces a different kind of show: The SDSU study found the number of female characters has dropped from from a high of 43 percent in the 2007-2008 season to 41 percent in the 2010-2011 season.)

When she staffed 'Alcatraz,' Elizabeth Sarnoff ('Lost,' 'Deadwood'), who co-created the show with J.J. Abrams, made sure that the writing staff had four women on it. All those women are senior writers.

"There just aren't enough women on writing staffs, period. There just aren't," Sarnoff said when I spoke to her a few weeks before the SDSU stats came out. "I felt very marginalized on every staff I've ever been on, because you feel like, 'Now I have to say that chicks wouldn't do that.' You know what I mean? Because there's nobody else to say it. It's not that guys are biased in one way or another, they're just guys in the same way we're women."

The irony is, according to Sarnoff, is that women's cultural conditioning makes them more likely to be able to contain their own creative impulses in ways that allow them to hew to the vision of the showrunner. "[Women are] better at subjugating their own egos and allowing themselves to embrace another voice," Sarnoff said. "Men fight it. I've seen it. I've been on enough staffs to see it, where they're the ones who are trying to push their own [stuff] through rather than actually say, "Okay, I'm actually here to serve another."

It's All About the Genre

The kind of shows that are in vogue can affect the composition of writers rooms as well. Women are perceived as being more appropriate for the staffs of "soapier," ensemble-driven shows, but that's not where TV is headed right now. "The trend in the industry has been away from that kind of [soapy] TV, toward shows that are either more episodic or more big-event shows," said Writer B. "And in those areas, the perception -- and I'm not saying I agree with this -- is that they are more the province of male writers." (Here's a bit of advice for aspiring women writers from that showrunner, whose last few potential female hires got better offers from other shows: "If you're a woman who writes kick-ass action, the employment picture is a lot better.")

Comedy's comeback could be a factor as well; networks have been bulking up on half-hour programs ever since 'Modern Family' became a breakthrough hit. Though late-night shows typically have very few or zero women on staff (that's true even now, despite last year's controversy over the overall lack of women in late-night writers' rooms), finding a prime-time comedy in which more than a third of the writing credits come from women isn't all that easy. Though 'Parks and Recreation' has many women on staff (40 percent of its Season 3 writing credits went to women), that's not necessarily typical -- of the 17 credited writers for 'Modern Family's' first two seasons, five are women.

"Having started in the half-hour world, I definitely felt that was male-dominated territory," said Rina Mimoun ('Privileged,' 'Pushing Daisies,' 'Everwood'). "Those rooms are generally larger than one-hour writing rooms, and they almost always have hardly any women on staff. [Maybe] that could account for some of the statistics?"

Ad Advice

But what if the problem is simply baked into television's revenue structure? For everyone except Netflix and the premium pay networks, pleasing advertisers is the name of the game, especially in these uncertain times.

"Just look at the primary measuring statistic for a viewing audience, the only statistic that matters financially -- males 18-49," said Kurt Sutter ('Sons of Anarchy,' 'The Shield'). "Networks demand that shows be aimed at that target audience. They have to. That's what advertisers demand of them. No ads, no TV. So by default, for the most part, we are creating television for white guys.

"Play out that reality -- who better than to write those shows? White guys. I'm guilty of it. I have women on staff, but the truth is, I've learned that men write shows about the struggles of men better than women," Sutter added. "I'm not saying that women can't write male characters. Some do, very well. But men can write male characters more accurately."

Even networks aimed at female viewers are generally cautious and unlikely to pursue shows that take creative risks -- and feature truly unconventional stories by and about women.

"We're not making art out here, we're making programming that allows networks to sell ad dollars," says Jill Soloway ('Six Feet Under,' 'United States of Tara,' 'How to Make It in America'). "The only ad dollars that appeal solely to women only are diapers and cleaning products. The expensive ad dollars, like cars and air travel, must appeal to both genders. ...Sometimes I watch 'Louie,' which, for my money, is one of the best shows I have ever seen on television, and wonder if ... a network would air a show where a woman was talking about masturbating and farting (in an awesomely deep way, mind you). The answer is no -- not because networks hate women, not because studios refuse to hire women creators -- but because there is no brand that would be willing to be associated with the idea of such an anti-heroic woman."

The Elephant in the Room

And then there are the powerful men in the industry who just don't get it.

"They tend to say things like, 'We tried [hiring a woman] once but she just didn't work out.' Or 'Women aren't as funny as men. Women writers aren't as good.' Yes, they say this. I've heard it. They often don't even realize how they sound," said Writer A.

"Without going into specifics, two older male colleagues teamed up to make my life miserable" at one of her previous gigs, Berg said. "The experience was as surprising as it was devastating, which is probably why I didn't handle it well. As a result, I'm much more discerning now with the jobs I take on other shows and have a strictly enforced No Douchebags policy when hiring a staff of my own."

"I've been on staffs, not recently, where I remember at the beginning of one season, the boss just called in all the men and didn't want the women, and was so happy not having the women around," Sarnoff recalled. "When I asked later why he did that, he said, 'Well, you know, it was just the upper-level people.' I said, 'Do you understand how wrong that is on every level?'"

An Unequal Future?

Perhaps as successive generations of men and women take the reins of the creative community in Hollywood, things will change. But where will the next generation of female writer/producers come from if the talent pool is shrinking?

"We've backtracked," says Scovell. "My sense is there are more women at the top, but fewer coming up the pipeline."

Given the dire statistics, there may be a vicious circle at work: Women who hear that the television industry is not welcoming to them may be less likely to become part of it in the first place. Writer B said he's tried to convince female feature writers to work as TV scribes, but they're wary of the hours and the probably have heard stories like the ones above. In any case, the process of winnowing down the number of female candidates begins at the talent agency level, where agents determine which writers even get representation in the first place. They tend to go with writers who have powerful mentors or who are shopping the kind of TV projects that have worked in the past. And so the cycle continues.

"My guess is that the majority of the showrunners are still males and tend to hire males disproportionately to women," said Ryan. "Anecdotally, I will say that when I get spec scripts [i.e., work samples] sent to me for consideration (from staff writer level all the way up to co-executive producer), we always get more from male writers than female. Are more male writers trying to write in Hollywood than women? Are agencies representing a disproportionate number of males? I'm not sure."

Whatever set of factors have led to the current state of affairs, the networks and studios have stood by while it happened.

For the networks and the studios, there's no real downside to things remaining exactly as they are. Women are understandably reluctant to engage in the kind of legal actions that would make them unemployable, and who would they sue, anyway? There are multiple studios and networks; the industry is more diffuse than, say, Walmart, which was sued because only 33 percent of women were in management. (And, as I pointed out in a story last year, that percentage would be an improvement for women in Hollywood, where only about 25 percent of the people with the title executive producer are women).

So things stay the same -- or, when the industry recoils from perceived or real crises, things get worse.

Will the brave new world of online media save the day? Will the decoupling of advertising and content lead to greater opportunities and different kinds of stories made by a wider variety of people? It's hard to say.

In a hopeful example, Felicia Day and Kim Evey, the women behind the hit web series 'The Guild,' talked in this story about how creating their own online series -- a season of which costs six figures -- allowed them to bypass many of the hurdles that women in the industry must jump.

On the other hand, when Netflix commissioned its first series, 'House of Cards,' it went with David Fincher, a big-name talent who has no experience running a television show. Is 'House of Cards' even television, considering you won't need to be near a set to watch it? It's a good question -- one that Fincher will reportedly have $100 million to answer.

Who'll have the last laugh? Well, Felicia Day owns her content. Maybe David Fincher should ask her for career advice.

A couple of notes: Veteran writer/producers Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain talked about many of the issues above in a 2010 Talking TV podcast)

Finally, we welcome your thoughts, reactions and insights in the comment area. Please keep it respectful and calm or your comments will be removed.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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I think this is great, Now we wont see so many male bashing programs and commercials!!

December 18 2011 at 1:58 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

First off, Jane Espenson is one of the best writers out there and not many men can top her...

Also, Kurt Sutter's comment about men writing for men might be true, but I think the reversal can be true as well. The female characters on his show don't act they way I think real women would act.

November 15 2011 at 5:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's rich men that can't handle Free women. Heterosexual Patriarchy is the heart soul and Flesh of the Democratic-republican single party monolith. Personally i have no problem accepting my male biological/sexual reality - e.g., if women are freed from guilt fear and shame there is no man on earth that could keep up with any woman sexually. I would Love to experience and enjoy that but other men can't handle it so they compete and try to come up with political pretensions - we're strong, smarter, whatever. This is the USA and rich guys get what they pay for. I'm a Socialist and it's really the only solution - because in that situation we're having a government that does things for people and humanity rather than business and businessmen

September 14 2011 at 12:19 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Michele MacKay

I read an article on this subject recently, and another statistic they talked about that correlated with the dominance of male writers was that male TV characters outnumber females, and received more lines and airtime. The only network to be an exception to the rule is The CW, where 52% of the characters are female--not surprising since their targeted demographic is young women.

Another consequence of the dominance of male writers is a common problem with TV shows. The female characters are created through a male POV: women are to be protected, desired, or feared. So we often end up with women who are damsels in distress, sex objects/love interests, or bitches/villainesses. I am so sick of female characters--who represent my gender--being portrayed in these stereotypes. All the shows I watch have strong female leads, women I can respect: Leverage, Chuck, Castle, and Bones. (Supernatural being the one exception, but I absolutely love everything else about that show, and they have gotten better with the female characters over time. Especially since Sera Gamble became the showrunner.)

I have to add a caveat concerning Amy Berg's comments. Coincidentally just last night I was listening to DVD commentary with Berg (on the Leverage episode The Fairy Godparents Job.) Though there was some discernible tension between her and director Jonathan Frakes and creator/head writer John Rogers, in all honesty, I was pissed off at her myself just listening to her for 42 minutes. And the couple of times when the tension did bleed through, the men were reacting to a specific writing or editing issue. For example, Frakes was angry because she had cut out a great shot, and I absolutely agree with him: it is the opposite of cost effective to take out a great shot that is only a few seconds long, she should've just taken out not-to-so-good longer footage. Also, the men showed great patience when she kept interrupting to talk about how great she was when they were trying to talk about the episode. I myself was going "Would you shut up?! I want to hear about this scene, not your magnificence!" Right after, I actually looked on the internet to find out which episode commentaries I would have to skip because she was on them, and was happy to find out she was no longer on the show. And that was after just listening to her for 42 minutes. I have listened to many other commentaries on this series with the same men, and they treated the other female writers with friendliness and respect. Before Amy Berg left, 4 out of the 8 writers on Leverage were women--a very non-sexist ratio of 50% compared to the industry's 15%. So though I absolutely agree that there is a problem with the way female writers are treated in Hollywood, I think there is a danger in ascribing every single incident to sexism. I am very confident sexism had nothing at all to do with this particular case. Halfway through the commentary, I myself would've fired her, and I'm a woman.

September 13 2011 at 1:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Tina Fey has raised the bar for women writers, but I do not think that it's fair for women to take the hit because of the economy!! That is horrible!!!

September 12 2011 at 3:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
creole moon

I think it's odd that "ABC" and 'THE CW", seems to make more women tv shows in the last few years than "CBS" has?

September 11 2011 at 9:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Renaissance Man

Strange that reality shows weren't mentioned in this article or the fact that minority writers is also quite absent. The number of scripted shows on network tv had dropped over time and the reality shows have proven to be a boon for the financially strapped networks. And while the focus is on women writers, most male audience members don't necessarily find themselves drawn to female subject matter is just that over the course of TV development, anything driven by a female as the lead or as the subject is subconsciously drawn into the arena of the Lifetime network, Hallmark channel or OWN. ANd when you have the commercials like tampons, vaginal creams, etc. you have to understand why men like the remote control. Men also don't like erectile function commercials, Cialis, Viagra, toilet tissue that sticks to your behind, jock itch commercials, commercials that talk about side effect of medication like anal leakage, stool softeners, and panty liners.

September 10 2011 at 9:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Craig Ranapia

I think a bigger picture that needs to be broken down is the idea that there's "women's shows/pictures" and "men's shows/pictures" period. Anyone else remember all the anguished "can a woman open an action flick" think-pieces around the release of Salt. Well, a $300m global b.o. for a non-sequel not based on a pre-existing property (a la Jason Bourne or James Bond) would strongly suggest that yes they can. Kathryn Bigelow went home with two Oscars for a war movie!

So, could some folks please get a clue?

September 10 2011 at 3:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
DJ Doena

It will certainly not help your argument if you use "positive stereotypes" that are as bad as their counterparts. For example, pointing out that women are supposedly better at multitasking. You can't cherry-pick if you want to be taken seriously.

September 10 2011 at 11:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

They're losing them because they SUCK at what they do. They give up and leave after seeing Men do a better job than them time and time again.

September 10 2011 at 9:22 AM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply

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