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Strike highlights lack of female writers

As Hollywood's striking scribes ventured out to their picket lines over the last two months, it's been plain to see — female writers are outnumbered by their male colleagues.
Image: Writer Elizabeth Johnson walks the picket line along members of the Writers Guild of America
Writer Elizabeth Johnson walks a picket line. Women make up 27 percent of television writers and 19 percent of feature film writers.Damian Dovarganes / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

As Hollywood's striking scribes ventured out to their picket lines over the last two months, it's been plain to see — female writers are outnumbered by their male colleagues.

"I'm surprised when I see a woman on the picket line and I always wonder, 'Hmm, do I know her?'" said Sarah McLaughlin, who wrote for "That 70s Show." "If I don't know a woman writer personally, I know of them."

Women make up 27 percent of television writers and 19 percent of feature film writers, according to the most recent Guild membership report from 2005, according to figures supplied by the Writers Guild of America.

Writers attribute the scarcity of women in their midst to tokenism, a tradition of bawdy humor in the writers room, and the dearth of women in key managerial positions.

Others say women have made significant strides toward parity in recent years, and feel increasingly comfortable working in an historically male-dominated field.

"I've worked with male writers who say flat out, women aren't funny," said McLaughlin, who says it's easier for women to get a foot in the door on dramatic shows.

Sitcoms typically draw their writing talent from standup clubs, where women are scarce, but that doesn't mean that witty women aren't plentiful, she said.

Some shows have only one or two female writers on staff, said McLaughlin, because managers and staff think they've met an unspoken quota.

"The industry is still primarily driven by men," said Elaine Aronson, who added she has been the "token woman" for many shows in her 19 years as a writer. "This was true way back in the days of `Golden Girls' (which ran in prime time from 1985 to '92). Men who create shows — even when they're about women — think that one woman is enough to have on a staff."

To hear some women tell it, some writers rooms are more like locker rooms, where writers cultivate a competitive atmosphere to squeeze the best jokes out of the staff.

"In order to be accepted in the writers room, you have to go to your male side in an extreme way," said Aronson. "Sometimes it's fine, and other times I wish I could have said, 'You filthy pig, I can't believe you said that.'"

Aronson added that in show business, big egos aren't the exclusive domain of men, and female managers can bully and belittle, while men can nurture talent and coordinate a productive staff.

Other women, many who are younger, say they're perfectly comfortable yucking it up with the boys.

"I've never felt at a disadvantage because of my gender," said Hilary Winston who writes for "My Name is Earl" where five out of the 18 staff writers are women.

Winston, 31, credits the generation of experienced women producers for opening up the writers room to all ages and genders, and mentoring young writers such as herself.

"I think it's a non-issue," she said. "Those battles were fought and I'm reaping the benefits."

Now what's more important in the writers room is that an individual's sense of humor fits with the show and with the rest of the staff, said Winston.

The need for female voices can also work to the advantage of women writers, said Stacy Traub, executive producer of "Notes from the Underbelly."

When Traub hires new writers she looks for diverse voices, raw talent and someone she wouldn't mind spending long hours with at work.

"There's no place I'd rather be than in the room with my staff," she said. "The writers room is home for me."

While her staff often draws on their own experiences, Traub maintains that one of the key skills of a good writer is to put themselves in someone else's shoes, and write for any character, regardless of the character's gender or race or age.

Traub is one of the few female showrunners who have landed that prestige position and created their own show.

As more women become showrunners and studio bosses, Hollywood is beginning to value women's voices in the writers room, said Kimberly Myers, the WGA's diversity director.

Women are well-represented in the guild's training sessions for aspiring managers, while the guild's "women's committee" meets regularly and women showrunners began an informal group.

"It takes time for things to change," said Myers. "As the number of women writers increases and they become more visible and prominent, more women will be drawn into the profession."

Myers said Shonda Rhimes, who created "Grey's Anatomy," is an example of how the industry is more open to women creating and managing their own shows, and talent winning out over connections and habit.

Female guild members who write for television bring home the same median earnings as men, about $94,000, but that doesn't include extra income paid to showrunners that doesn't get reported to the WGA.

Women who write features make only $50,000 per year to a man's $90,000, though there's been a slight decline in the percentage of women writing for film.

"Studios are concentrating on giant blockbusters and those are young, male-driven movies," said Myers, while fewer romantic comedies are being produced.

"It's a good-old-boy thing. You give the job to someone who has a track record, and those people are men. It's self-perpetuating," said Diane Saltzberg, who has sold scripts to MGM.

Saltzberg said some female screenwriters submit scripts with only their initials to avoid a reader's bias.

"Sexism is just another -ism that you have to deal with in this town, like ageism and weightism," but women sometimes suffer from these biases more than men, she said. "Once I had a tasteful gray streak in my hair and my writing partner said she wouldn't go into a meeting with me until I got rid of it."

Saltzberg said the success of young writers like Diablo Cody, who wrote "Juno," means women will have a better chance of seeing their names in lights in the future.

"I like the old cream-rises-to-the-top idea," she said. "Male or female, it should be about the words on the pages."