In Hollywood, Creative Women Are Still at the Back of the Bus; Way Back

Ever read the credits of your favorite TV show or movie? Chances are it was written by a man. A recent report from the Writer's Guild of America West, "Whose Stories Are We Telling?" shows us why. The story the report tells is of an industry whose "business-as-usual-practices have been wholly inadequate for addressing the lack of diversity among writers."

The news is bad for women writing for TV, and worse for women writing in film. According to Darnell Hunt, the lead author of the 2007 Hollywood Writers Report and director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, "women are still under-represented about 2 to 1 in the industry and that's pretty much across the board. In some places you see signs of progress, but overall it's pretty stagnant and quite distressing considering this has been a story we have been telling for a couple of decades." The report also covers minority writers who are also struggling at 10% of TV writers and a mere 6% of film scribes.

In film, the percentage of women writers of features has hovered between 17% and 19% since 1999. Why are there so few? Kimberly Myers, newly appointed director of diversity at the guild, believes that some of the problems stem from the Hollywood blockbuster obsession.

"Executives increasingly are looking for blockbuster movies that are going to appeal to a youth audience that they think of as more male than female," says Myers. "Therefore, they are likely to be more interested in what male writers are pitching." When they do get a job, women tend to make less money: the median women's earnings decreased 6.1% while male earnings increased 16.1%. In a single year, between 2004 and 2005, the gender pay gap doubled from $20,000 to $40,000. While neither Myers nor Hunt has a complete explanation for the gigantic jump, Myers attributes it to the continued consolidation of the industry: "all it takes is one studio to change their policy about the number and type of films they are making and it can impact the whole industry, which is not that large to being with."

On a slightly more positive note, the TV business is way ahead of film in understanding that women are consumers of entertainment. TV executives recognize women as a viable demographic, search out women's stories, and hire women to craft those stories. Women writers still have a long way to go, making up a consistent 27% of TV writers. But earnings have increased, and the pay gap is only about $300. The guild figures may not be reliable for upper echelon earners, however, since it only requires writers to report on the first $6,000 made per week. Particularly at entry or midlevel jobs, says Darnell Hunt, "pay scales are becoming more regularized in TV no matter who you are. At the upper level there is more gender inequality than at the lower levels -- that would be my guess."

Why are women writers better off in TV? Partly, it's the nature of the jobs, which are more institutionalized in TV. You start out as a staff writer and work your way up, as compared to the one-shot deals screenwriters get. Still, the TV pipeline is overfilled with men. As of February 2006, 58% of the pilots in consideration for the season that just ended had no women as principals.

White male writers still make up 72% of guild membership. While the organization should be commended for continuing to bring attention to gender and other inequities with the annual report, it should really think about having writers report their full earnings in order to get a realistic sense if, and where, there are disparities in earnings, especially at the highest level.

But, this guild is clearly trying to address issues that others in Hollywood would be happy to continue to ignore. Kim Myers, who has been a producer at Turner and Fox, emphasized that "we live in an extremely diverse society. If you really want to engage your audience, you have to have diverse people writing, with their own experiences to draw on, in order to tell those stories in an authentic way."

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