04/03/2012 05:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Hollywood's Female Trouble: Part 1, The Writers

A female friend recently said to me, "Sexism in the entertainment industry is so prevalent that most people are blind to it, and barely notice it anymore." This friend has been a Hollywood insider for decades, and Emmy nominated for her writing -- twice. Among her observations: "Not one show on HBO is created by a woman. Male audiences are the most coveted demographic. Studios are afraid to give women writers a big action movie. Being a woman writer in Hollywood feels like Peggy Olson on Mad Men every day still."

This isn't the first time I've heard all this. I poked around, and did some research. Among the recent statistics from the Writer's Guild of America: Women comprise 28 percent of all employed writers in television, and less than 20 percent of writers in film. And yes, HBO has not one current series on the air created by a woman.

I contacted various women in the business to get their take on it all, starting with Kimberly Myers, Director of Diversity at the WGA:

There are still plenty of Peggy Olson's out here. I think we're all Peggy. We've all felt sexism in various ways and we've all decided that it's not going to stop us from doing what we want to do in our careers. Women can and should be writing and directing everything, not just women's experiences. It's true that, by and large, they're not being recruited to write the big budget, tentpole movies."

What about the claim that male audiences are more coveted than female audiences? Writer, and member of the WGA Board of Directors, Thania St John (Grimm):

There's the age old idea that women will accept more male oriented stories and entertainment, but men aren't interested in female subject matter. So if you're going for across the board ratings, which shows would you develop? But look at the bidding war that happened over the e-novel 50 Shades of Grey that has a female demo. It's all about what's hot and marketable.

Looking at the big picture, Myers analyzes the effects vertical integration has had on the entertainment industry at large:

"The powers at the top have a substantial influence, and there are basically five corporations who own the networks and studios, and ultimately control, Hollywood. These companies are run by males of a certain age and background who are not intrinsically sexist or racist, but people tend to play, and do business with the people they know, and the influential power brokers in the entertainment industry, with a few exceptions, are not female. Corporations mostly only answer to their stockholders. The stockholders' agenda isn't societal; their priority is for their company to make money. The disconnect though is that television and film have unique, strong societal implications. It's a very interesting ethical question: If you are involved in a field that has profound societal implications, which media does, is there any responsibility you have to the society over and above the bottom line of your corporation? I don't know if anybody is even asking that question. In a capitalistic society -- the answer is probably 'no.' The only bottom line is what makes money.

While statistics may seem troubling, St. John is focused on the positive:

The numbers for women are better than what they were. When I first started, I was often the only woman in the writer's room or at a network meeting, and had to think and talk like one of the boys to be accepted. Now, sometimes it's all women. And in upper-level positions. That changes the climate naturally. The more women that have success means the more women that get success.

Myers adds:

There's at least two dozen, if not more, major female showrunners working on series television right now. Carol Mendelsohn (C.S.I.), and Shonda Rhimes (Grey's Anatomy/Private Practice/Scandal) are industries in and of themselves, and of course Veena Sud (The Killing), Suzanne Martin (Hot In Cleveland) -- the list is long. Women are actually more powerful in entertainment than people understand, and the next ten years will see many changes for the better for women in entertainment.

And for whatever reason, when women become showrunners, their shows look different in terms of the people they hire. Not only do they tend to hire more women, but also more diversity behind and in front of the camera. I'd love for someone to do a real study about that.

WGA Award winning writer, Margaret Nagle (Warm Springs, Side Order Of Life), looks at the bright side:

Thank God for Kristin Wiig and for Tina Fey. They write, they act, they're executive producing, and they're telling stories that the public loves. This is proof that it's possible for all of us.

St. John summarizes:

Respect and power don't come often in this business. I think resilience is the quality all artists need to have, the ability to get up and do it again tomorrow after we've been stomped on today. But I believe you make your own opportunities, and self-respect earns respect from others. It's easy to complain and blame sexist circumstances, because in this case those circumstances do exist. But overcoming them is the trick. And the more women lead by example, the less I hope we'll have to answer these questions in the future

Coming next: "Hollywood's Female Trouble: Part 2, The Directors..."

Veena Sud (showrunner for The Killing on AMC):