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?"
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 2010 story, 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.
Notes: This story first appeared on AOL TV in September 2011, which became Huffington Post TV in December 2011. Also, veteran writer/producers Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain talked about many of the issues above in a 2010 Talking TV podcast.