Critics like to tell us that scripted television is better than ever: TV viewers in 2011 have an embarrassment of riches to choose from, from Mad Men to 30 Rock to Modern Family. We can also watch any of these shows any time we want to, often for free. But what’s not better than ever is the number of women in writers’ rooms. A new study finds that last year, women made up only 15% of prime-time broadcast television writers. That’s down from 35% in 2006-07. Another found that the wage gap between male and female TV writers almost quadrupled between 2000 and 2009. Why are the numbers so grim for women?
Maureen Ryan takes an in-depth look at this question over at AolTV, and her whole piece is worth reading. She spoke with a wide variety of writers and creators, both male and female. Everyone seems to agree that gender diversity leads to better television. As one female writer told Ryan, “A balanced writers’ room is like a balanced world. Everyone thrives, good work gets done, people like each other and the show is better for it. Women keep the room moving. They’re great at multitasking and getting along with others. They don’t procrastinate and they open up with lots of personal anecdotes that make for great stories on the show and great character beats. They tend to smell good.”
Ryan’s piece offers several explanations for the recent changes. Writing opportunities have decreased since the writers’ strike in 2007 and 2008, and minorities are often impacted most severely when jobs become scarce. Old-fashioned sexism probably plays a role; plenty of men still think that women just aren’t funny. And in uncertain times, networks shy away from risks — including producing shows created by and staffed by newcomers.
Ryan also finds that some producers think that as long as they have one woman on staff, they’re good to go. But those women are often low on the totem pole. They’re often under enormous pressure as the “token female” in a very male culture, and they have a hard time advancing. As one writer puts it, “If women aren’t hired to write on staff they can’t be mentored. They can’t gain experience and they can’t move up and then ultimately create their own show. They can’t have overall deals. They are essentially shut out of the process. We are seeing the effects now of women being shut out of the process.”