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Women Can't Create and White Men Can't Jump

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I received several emails this past week pointing out the scarcity of women writers on the recent pilot pickups. At a cursory glance it is easy to jump on the bandwagon decrying the lack of diversity among the "creator" ranks, not to mention showrunners and writing staffs, but this was a subject worth pursuing in a bit more depth. Nikki Finke sent a missile to the broadside of various network heads about what was being called "the worst year in a decade for female writers and showrunners."

Based on announced pilot pickups and using The Studio System and the Trades, I made a list of all the new pilots that had been ordered to production as of February 1 for the four major broadcast networks, as well as the credited writers, the production studio and the intended network. Of the 66 pilots I documented, 13 pilots had at least one female writer as part of the "created by" team; however, of those 66 pilots, only 7 of them were written entirely by women. You can do the math yourself, but this works out to a high of 20% involvement by women when writing alone and/or with men; and just 11% when written by women without male participation. A closer look at the all the names will reveal one writer of Hispanic origin, three Asian-Americans and an entire absence of African American writers.

The WGAW, as part of their diversity program, instituted a "Writer Access Project" to try to draw attention to underrepresented groups - considered to be "minority writers and writers with disabilities; women writers; writers age 55 and over; and gay and lesbian writers." Their proactive response...a contest? Why is there no outcry? This isn't a glass ceiling, it's a White Boys' Club brick wall. Showrunners often staff their shows with friends they can trust, even if those friends aren't the best writers available, and since the vast majority of Showrunners are men, so are their friends, and therefore so are their staffs.

But who is it that's picking these pilots for production? Studio and network executives, of course. And who are these studio and network executives? Who has the power? It might surprise you. Network Chairmen are overwhelmingly male; there are no women within those ranks. Network and Studio Presidents, however, are almost evenly split with 4 men and 3 women. As far as creative executives with a title of Vice President or above, the tale becomes more interesting and perplexing because the vast majority of these executives are women, 42 female creative execs compared to 28 male executives. Is it possible that women are discriminating against women?

An article in the June 24, 2009 New York Times by Patricia Cohen entitled "Rethinking Gender Bias in Theater" may have pinpointed what is happening in television as well. A research study had been conducted in an effort to find out whether women playwrights were underrepresented on stages across America and the answer was yes. What was more interesting was why. Women artistic directors and literary mangers, the people who chose the plays to present, discriminated against women playwrights. Emily Glassberg Sands, a Princeton Economics student, "conducted separate studies to analyze this problem. One study considered the playwrights themselves. Artistic directors of theater companies have maintained that no discrimination exists, rather that good scripts by women are in short supply." This she discovered was true - there was a shortage of good scripts by women compared to the number by men. There are twice as many male playwrights as female which accounts for some of the discrepancy. This may also be the case in television as there are far more male writers than female (usually for the reasons elaborated above).

In another study, Ms. Sands "sent identical scripts to artistic directors and literary managers around the country. The only difference was that half named a man as the writer (for example, Michael Walker), while half named a woman (i.e., Mary Walker)." When female artistic directors and literary managers judged the scripts, Mary's scripts "received significantly worse ratings in terms of quality, economic prospects and audience response than Michael's." When judged by male artistic directors and literary managers the scripts got equal ratings.

The question for television then becomes, are women fighting both the Boys' Club and prejudice within the ranks of those who do the choosing? The Princeton study certainly brings up more questions than answers.

But one thing is for sure. Whether it's 11% or 20% something is clearly wrong and needs to be fixed. Ladies in your office suites, are you listening?

Cross-posted with Baseline Research.