Still Sucks to Be a Female Writer in Hollywood

by Melissa Silverstein on November 19, 2009

in Sexism,Women Writers

The Writers Guild of America West has released its most recent report on the status of women and people of color in Hollywood and just like the report of two years ago (and the ones before) women seem to be making no traction.  In fact, in movies, it’s getting worse.

Here’s from the introduction:

The 2009 Hollywood Writers Report updates an all-too-familiar story about the challenges faced by diverse writers on the employment and earnings fronts.

The previous report — released in 2007 by the Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW)
– found that business-as–usual industry practices resulted in virtually no progress for
women and minority writers.  Indeed, these writers had actually gone backwards in some
areas relative to their male and white counterparts since the Guild’s 2005 report. The
2007 report thus called for “rethinking business as usual” in the industry, which would
include establishing “clear goals, reasonable timetables and effective mechanisms” for
diversifying access to writing opportunities.

Despite this clarion call, the present report finds little if any improvement in the
employment and earnings of diverse writers in the Hollywood industry.  White males
continue to dominate in both the film and television sectors.  Women remain stuck at 28
percent of television employment and 18 percent of film employment.  The minority
share of film employment has been frozen at 6 percent since 1999, while the group’s
share of television employment actually declined to 9 percent since the last report.
Although women and minorities closed the earnings gaps with white men in television a
bit, the earnings gaps in film grew.

The stats:

Women hold just 25% of all the writing jobs.  TV jobs make up 28%, and film jobs make up 19%.

Earnings: There is an over $5,000 earnings gender gap in TV and almost $42,000 in film.  This is the widest margin in years.

So people, men make $42,000 more per year than women.  How fucked up is that!  For every $100 a male screenwriter makes, a woman makes $58.  That’s higher than the overall gender earnings gap.

The previous Hollywood Writers Report noted that while women writers had made considerable strides in television earnings, they appeared to be going backwards in film earnings.  The current report suggests that these trends continue to hold for women writers relative to their white male counterparts.

As the steam was coming out of my ears, I emailed a few questions to Kim Myers, the director of diversity at the WGAW answered some questions about the data.  (Keep in mind that the data is through the end of 2007 and that women of color are in both the women’s number and the minority numbers.)
Women & Hollywood:  Why do you think that women film writers are losing ground?

Kim Myers: Although this is somewhat anecdotal, in conversation with women screenwriters most attribute this fact to the type of films that are being developed at the studios.  The emphasis is on tentpole movies and franchises – many of which are comic book or graphic novel adaptations.  Action is the main focus of these movies.  While there are many women screenwriters who have written and continue to write action movies, this is often seen as the province of male writers.  With that in mind, it could be the reason women screenwriters are getting fewer jobs – and being paid less because they are not being hired to write the “Big Movies”.

W&H: The call to action from the last report seems not to have made a dent.  What can be done so that in 2 years we are not sitting here again reading the same type of data?

KM: The Guild started the Writer Access Project to highlight the work of experienced, talented diverse television writers and to dispel the myth that there is limited pool of these writers out there.  We are very encouraged by the response to that project within our own membership (140 producer level TV writers and showrunners participated as judges in the project) and we hope to build awareness of the program over time.  We will be continuing it this year.

There are also plans to start a Feature Access Project which will highlight the work of diverse feature writers.  We are in early stages of this – and it does present some challenges, but we know it needs to be done.  As a Guild we are being proactive in the areas where we can have influence.  But we do not have any influence over many aspects of the hiring process for writers.

We also have to keep advocating with the networks, the studios, the production companies to open the doors – to put different kinds of projects into development and production – and to make a serious commitment to change.

W&H: What would you say to a young woman who wants to become a TV or film writer in light of the bleak statistics?

KM: The obvious advice based on statistics alone is that television writing presently offers a career path that has more potential for women writers.  However, trends change.  It may be a young female screenwriter who writes the film that introduces a whole new era in feature films – who’s to say? What comes next after all the comic book adaptations?  No one knows – until they see it. Basically I think one always has to advise emerging writers to write their passion, to develop their original voice and to hone their craft so that they can find their place in a very competitive industry. And let’s not forget new media. We now live in a world where it is increasingly possible for all young writers to get together with their peers and actually make the films they write – advances in technology are certainly encouraging this. They have a kind of control over their future that previous generations of writers have not had.

W&H: What if anything positive do you see in the data?

KM: I think we see clearly that when women are in positions of power, such as women showrunners in television, they do hire other women and people of color.  That’s very encouraging and lays the foundation for change.

A couple of comments.

First, it’s only going to get worse for women in features if the trend towards big, male-centric films keeps going.

Second, the Writer’s Access Project mentioned above is a program where TV scripts are submitted by minority writers and writers with disabilities, women writers, writers over age 55, and gay and lesbian writers without any names on them.  The program was a big success with the producers and writers who were impressed with the material.

This reminds me very much of the research done in theatre and the gender blind orchestra auditions.   When the gender of the writers is removed it makes a difference and women get further.  The WGAW is trying to create a program like this for features and I would be interested in seeing the results.  Gender blind submissions could be a key to more opportunities for women.

The success of the WAP, it seems, dispels a key myth that has worked to excuse the stagnation we continue to see in the diversification of the Hollywood writing corps:  the  idea that the pool of diverse writers is limited.  To be sure, the success of the program suggests that the underemployment of diverse writers in the industry really has more to do with access, networking, and opportunity than with a shortage of talent.

Second, when women have power they hire women.  The key is getting more women into power positions.  Look at the staff of Shonda Rhimes’ shows.  Lots of women.  Look at the staff of Cold Case, lots of women.  It makes a difference.

2009 Hollywood Writers Report

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist November 19, 2009 at 11:50 AM

And the shitty thing is, last week you posted an article Marsha Norman wrote and she said that she gets better opportunities as a female screenwriter than as a playwright!

Ugh…

wellywoodwoman November 19, 2009 at 1:40 PM

From my own research in New Zealand, I believe that women who hold powerful positions in television are more supportive of women than (the few) women who hold powerful positions in the film industry. And even in television, where women writers are more likely to find work and to do very well, often it’s men who give them their first opportunities. I think it’s really important to consider the two industries separately. The Feature Access Project sounds exciting, what a great initiative.

Tammy November 19, 2009 at 5:17 PM

Every single studio should have a diversity program. They could take a sliver of their massive 100 million dollar film budgets and have a woman or minority writer/director trainee on every single film set. The stars get the biggest salary 20 million, 10 million. If they wanted to get publicity for their diversity initiatives, the studios could have the stars, such as Angelina Jolie, George Clooney and friends, donate $50,000 of their huge salary to fund the George Clooney diversity trainee.

Sooner or later it’s going to become a huge PR problem that Film & Television is the most sexist, racist business in the nation. They make Goldman Sachs look good by comparison.

Scott H. November 19, 2009 at 5:37 PM

I just wanted to thank you very much for this illuminating article. I have already bookmarked your site, when I have more free time I am going to have to do some further research. Well back to my dreaming of Panama or back to the books – I wonder which one is going to win out. :)

stephanie rosenfeld November 20, 2009 at 12:21 AM

And somehow I don’t find Myers’ meant-to-be-inspiring words inspiring: Write your passion, close your eyes and hope, basically: trends could always change; or make your own movies. I think the fact that this is best that a director of a diversity program can come up with is pretty bad news. Even if she’s not part of the problem, it does kind of indicate the intractability of the problem.

Diana November 20, 2009 at 4:12 AM

While the idea of the Writers Access Program is great, the reality is that you must be a member in good standing with the WGA and have produced projects in order to apply. So within the WGA membership, what is the % of women and ethnic minority members? As was pointed out, much of the idea of ‘getting in’ is about access and opportunity – so how does this program or even the WGA do to actually help with that? What is being done to cultivate new women and ethnic minority writers?
http://www.wga.org/content/default.aspx?id=3792

Earl November 20, 2009 at 11:11 AM

Part of this could be a self-selection process. The proportion of women and people of color who pursue writing careers in this industry could be much lower proportionally than white males. That’s not to negate any bias that may exist in the industry, but it shouldn’t be discounted as an explanatory factor. The same goes for the wage discrepancies. It’s not clear whether you’re comparing apples and apples or not. The wage difference could be a reflection of experience. Because women and people of color have had such a difficult time getting writing jobs, when they do actually get hired, their list of credits isn’t as long or high profile, so their wages are lower. That sort of thing should correct itself in time.

Again, this isn’t to negate the potential for bias in the industry, but it pays to consider all sides.

Tammy November 20, 2009 at 2:08 PM

Earl, women make up 50% of the film schools. Just as they are now 50% of the law schools and medical schools. The difference is that women have made virtually no progress in the film industry, whereas in other fields the companies were sued for discrimination back in the 90′s. EVERYONE, including the infamously sexist Wall St, has made progress on these issues. If you’re a woman in science, there are all sorts of scholarship programs and opportunities for mentorship. I think part of the reason there has been no progress in this industry is because there have been no lawsuits. Who is going to sue? It would be career suicide.

Correct itself in time??? I can be an astronaut, work secret service detail guarding the president, target missiles in Afghanistan, but we will be sitting here until doomsday waiting for things to change in Hollywood. In the meantime, I have wasted my entire adult life in a business that refuses to hire women.

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