From the mid-80s through the late-90s, I was a fixture on the WGA Committee of Women Writers. I truly believed that if we fought the good fight for equality we would ultimately establish meaningful inroads. We did studies of network and studio hiring practices. We rallied behind a professor at UC San Diego whose own studies lent an element of objectivity to the discussion. We held panels and launched access programs. Every year, I took it upon myself to count the names of women who received credit on theatrical feature films that qualified for WGA awards. Every year, I would double check my math hoping that I had missed something rather than accept the single digit number of women compared to the triple digit ranks of men in the same category. Over the years, the industry managed to increase the percentage of women writing for film and television in an amount that was so insignificant it could qualify in the category of statistical "range of error." Ultimately, I walked away from the battle and opted to pursue print and digital media opportunities.
This week, the Writers Guild of America West held a press conference to announce the WGA 2013 TV Staffing Brief -- a report of the hiring practices of networks and studios in regard to women and minority categories. As always, the progress was akin to the proverbial drop in the bucket. Between the 1999 and 2012 television seasons, the number of women who were hired as staff writers on television series increased by 5 percent. To quote the report: "At this rate of increase, it would be another 42 years before women -- roughly half the U.S. population -- reach proportionate representation in television staff employment." Perhaps I was too optimistic. Make that a drop in the river.
When I started writing hour episodic television in 1980, I was frequently told that I wrote "like a man." I preferred to think that I wrote "like a woman who likes men" -- but when I actually said that to a producer I was told that I needed to learn how to take a compliment. Remember, this was in the days before anti-discrimination litigation was commonplace and people felt they could speak their mind. Other ridiculous comments that were said to me in the 1980s include:
"I hired a girl once and it didn't work out."
"What's the matter -- doesn't your husband make a good enough living?"
"Why don't you want to stay home with your baby?"
"You know, when MY wife was postpartum..."
While there are many ways to debate the first three absurd comments, the last one is a killer. No telling what this fella's wife went through after giving birth to his progeny. While I would have welcomed an opportunity to let her know that she was being used as an excuse for unfair hiring practices, I also took into consideration the delight (not) it must have been to live with this guy. The important take away note is that they may not be saying things like this anymore, but the numbers certainly do not demonstrate a drastically different way of thinking.
In the 2011/12 television season, 10 percent of television series had no women writers on staff. But it's not just the ranks of writers that need a shakeup. Only 18.6 percent of the executive producers on television series were women. So, given the oft-repeated, completely unacceptable excuse that "we hire the people we know and they tend to be like us," part of the solution is that women writers ought to be working together with women producers to increase their numbers. Otherwise we are facing a tragic outcome: our only consolation is the fact that more women in our generation are living to celebrate their 100th birthday.