By Holly L. Derr | Women and Hollywood April 15, 2014 at 10:00AM
The Writer's Guild of America West has released the executive summary of its 2014 , which reveals that despite modest gains, women remain underrepresented in television by a factor of two to one (they are at 27%), while minorities remain underrepresented by three to one. In film, the employment of women and minority writers has actually declined to 15%. Women writing in TV make 92% of what men make (due to Guild contracts), yet in film the gender pay gap in film grew larger with women earning 77 cents to every male dollar a decrease from 82 cents.
The WGAW runs two diversity programs to try and make a difference on this issue: the Writer's Access Project for television, and the Feature Access Project for film. They have also launched a new women-specific initiative - (WOW) - that aims to increase visibility for women writers and promote equitable hiring. Their strategy includes the use of social media, with hashtags like #awomanwrotethat and #hirewomenwriters, creating a searchable database of diverse WGAW writers for showrunners to consult when staffing their writing teams, and hammering home the fact that in failing to diversify their hiring practices, producers are leaving money on the table.
The data proving this is fast becoming undeniable. A released earlier this year by the Ralph J. Bunch Center for African American Studies at UCLA revealed that minorities make up 44.1% of frequent moviegoers and that movies with cast diversity (often a result of a diverse creative team) do better at the box office than those that don't. In television, ratings were higher for shows with diverse casts and writing staffs than those without, and, given the buying power of women and minorities, advertisers are growing increasingly fond of shows that appeal to those audiences. Nate Silver's Five Thirty Eight site crunched the numbers for movies that pass the Bechdel test (often a result of a gender-diverse creative team) and found that they not only do better in America than those that don't pass, and they also don't lose money overseas – a frequent argument by producers for not making more movies about women.
In addition to the diversity initiatives run by the Guild, ABC, FOX, and NBC as well as their cable channels, have what is colloquially referred to as a "diversity slot" in which the studio will pay the salary for a diverse writer for one or two seasons, providing a financial incentive to the show to diversify. Though white women were not originally included, WGA Director of Diversity Kimberly Myers says that the definition has finally been expanded to include women.
According to Meyers, these programs and the departments at the studios that sponsor them came about in response to a 1999 NAACP led boycott threat made because none of the big four television networks had a lead actor or actress of color in any of 26 new shows - proving that economic factors can be a powerful tool in persuading studios that change is in their interest. Yet in the ensuing years, the problem has not been solved. Asked why limited improvements have been made Meyers shared that a lot of the problem stems from white and male privilege.
Tanya Saracho, a writer with experience on the HBO shows Girls and Looking articulated something similar about her experience being the diversity hire:
That whole thing is so complicated. Some of us might not have gotten in if we weren't the diversity hire, but then you are "otherized" because of it, and you have to prove yourself. 25% of your time as a woman you spend your time wiggling out of situations because of sex. And if you're a person of color you spend 25% wiggling around race and ethnicity and nationality. So if you're a woman of color, you spend 50% of your energy wiggling and navigating these minefields, because the micro aggressions happen every day. So you're at 50% capacity because you're wiggling and you have to prove yourself double. You're trying to do 200% with 50%. Wouldn't it be great if you didn't have to spend all that time wiggling? What would we be able to achieve at 100%?
Meyers says she has heard this sentiment from other diversity hires who want the program to stay in place but regret that it can result in ghettoization:
So if you ask writers, as I have done, should these slots be eliminated because of all the problems we know exist, everybody has always said, 'Well, they can be difficult but we wouldn't want to see them go away because it was our start.' So the biggest thing is that we have to find ways to encourage the networks and the show runners to really support these people. If you're gonna do it, support them. Really stay on top of what's going on, nurture them. Everybody has to up their game to make these programs work. And you have to get everybody at the network level and the development level out of the mindset that diverse writers are only staff writers. It's great to have a way in, but once they've worked their way up the ranks, are you developing pilots with them, and if not, why not?
In film, where programs like those found in television are far more rare, the main issue facing women directors, writers, and producers continues to be funding. According to Deborah Calla, chair of the Producer's Guild of America's Diversity Committee, entrepreneurial women are often able to get a first movie made by raising money from their family and friends. Once they've exhausted the resources in their inner circle, however they don't succeed in making a second film at the same rate that men do. The PGA's emphases, therefore, are on providing women in film (where writers are increasingly producers as well) with the data they need to prove to financiers that movies about women can make money and on working with women in film school to teach them how to ask for money, to believe they deserve it, and to believe they can return it.
Meyers is simultaneously hopeful about the future of Hollywood and realistic about the continuing barriers to advancement for women and minorities: "It could be changed tomorrow. You just start hiring women writers. But people in power like to perpetuate their own power and they are more comfortable with people like themselves."
Calla added, "The Boys Club is something we all have to work together to change. You can feel the wall of man there. It can be intimidating. If we create a wall of women, it will be less intimidating."