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Under-Representation in Screenwriting

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This topic contains 86 replies, has 22 voices, and was last updated by  Scott Myers 5 months, 1 week ago.

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    Shaula Evans

    I just received this by email from Franklin Leonard:

    The Nicholl’s website reveals a startling stat: 1 in 4 of their applicants are women.

    What a great springboard to launch a conversation about under-representation in screenwriting.

    For most people, especially our regulars around here, the concepts arising in this conversation are just common sense, but for some people, this topic is very political. Before we proceed, I want to clearly state some parameters for this discussion.

    1. Under-Representation is a Bad Thing. Diversity is a Good Thing.
    People telling their own stories is a good thing. People seeing characters like themselves portrayed as heroes is a good thing. Allowing a greater range of people to fully participate in manufacturing culture is a good thing. Having a deeper and broader understanding of the varieties of human experience makes us smarter, better, more compassionate people, enriches our culture, and makes us less likely to repeat the dark chapters of our history.

    We’re going to take this as a given for this discussion and not put it up for debate.

    2. We don’t talk politics at The Black Board.
    Under-Representation is a screenwriting topic with very political ramifications. The political elephant in the room is the fact that in societies where women have higher social status, more social welfare support as mothers, greater reproductive self-determination, and more earning power, they participate more fully in society including in the manufacture of cultural products–there’s lots of global comparative data indexing women’s status and social participation, and if you dig a little, you can find some similar research on other groups, too. If the topic and the potential for action and change at a political level interests you I encourage you to look into it on your own. However, the idea that these documented facts are politically contentious saddens me but the truth remains that they are political, so we’re not going to get into that in this discussion.

    Please do your best to keep the topic as narrowly defined as possible. Please don’t take the bait if the conversation gets political. If other people go off topic, the mods and I will handle it. Thank you very much for your assistance on this point.

    3. “Where are all the women?” is an old Internet Meme.
    I’ve had this conversation many times over in every male-dominated Internet community I have ever belonged to (at least those with any iota of self-awareness).  I confess: I come to this discussion a little bit tired. The topic and the issues it potentially addresses are important and real and even in many cases urgent. But, the discussion almost always unfolds along the same lines. [I’m going to throw around some feminist and academic terms here and I’ll try to hotlink them to good explanations; if you have questions please read the links.]

    Someone, almost always a man who is a feminist ally, raises the question of “Where are all the women?”

    An earnest discussion ensues. Some valid, thoroughly-researched, well-documented points are raised, like the issue of double burden or second shift work (where women have disproportionate responsibility for unpaid child care, elder care, and domestic work), the lack of pay equity for women and how that affects the ability to undertake creative pursuits (in 2011, female full-time workers in the US made only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men), male privilege, and other elements of Feminism 101. There are also some good references to implicit bias. There may be a mention of impostor syndrome, its disproportionate prevalence among women and groups with low social status, and its relationship with internalized oppression.

    There is a brief discussion about how individual effort rarely overcomes issues of systemic injustice.

    A handful of women pipe up about their own lived experiences (which are often very different from men’s impressions).

    And then… things rapidly get ugly. Some men demand the women in the room give them a distilled master class in Feminism 101 (rather than use a search engine and do the work to educate themselves). The women don’t necessarily have the time or energy. The men in question are sulky and belligerent over not being spoon-fed feminism and don’t notice that their male privilege is showing.

    A number of men step up to mansplain to the women in the discussion how their impressions of their own lived experiences are invalid and what the situation is really like from a more valid male perspective. The women stop talking. The men don’t notice.

    There are references to biological determinism and evolutionary biology that explain how men are just innately better suited to this field and poor, simple, fragile women and their lady-brains just aren’t cut out for this stuff.

    A number of men point out the woman they know who has succeeded in this field and they conclude that any woman who tries hard enough can make it. Much back-slapping and self-congratulations ensues.

    The reigning authoritarian far-right political website of the day and/or a number of “men’s rights” groups sic their shock troops on the discussion and it turns into an all-out troll fest. The conversation changes into a big debate about “what about the poor neglected and discriminated-against men?” The thinking people having left a long time ago, the conversation runs out of fuel, and eventually dies… until, like the antagonist in a long-running horror franchise, it pops back up for the next round of the discussion a little while later.

    If you’ve been around the Internet for a while you know what I’m talking about. I’ve been in this conversation more times than I can count, and many of you probably have too, including the variations on “where are the gay people,” “where are the black people”, etc. You will understand, I hope, if I approach this discussion with a certain wariness.

    But we have a great track record here at The Black Board of holding intelligent conversations about sensitive topics. And I’m willing to try with you to have a different conversation, that doesn’t rehash that tired old meme, and instead breaks some new ground and talks about what we can do about under-representation individually and collectively.

    4. This isn’t about just women. AKA Welcome to Intersectionality.
    “Where are the women” pops up more than other similar potential questions, both online and offline, because it is relatively easy to tell from people’s names if they are male or female, and unless you are collecting demographic data, it ranges from difficult to impossible to tell what proportion of your community are people of color or GLBTQ, have disability issues, are members of minority religions, are economically disadvantaged, etc. Geography is certainly an obstacle of a different kind that many of us right here are actively tackling. Age discrimination is a terrible scourge in American TV writing. And where women are under-represented other people often are, too, and their lack of participation and representation can be even harder to address because it is an “invisible” problem. So we’re going to open this up beyond the question of gender and look at the broader question of under-representation of any group in screenwriting, along with examples of programs and resources that are addressing obstacles to those groups.

    Okay, now that we’ve established the ground rules for our discussion, let’s talk about under-representation in screenwriting.

    I’m going to end my preamble here and open up the discussion to you:

    What resources have helped you overcome the obstacles you face in your screenwriting career?

    Who do you know, as individuals or organizations, that is providing support to under-represented writers?

    What efforts are you aware of to address under-representation in other fields that screenwriting could learn from?

    What kind of support or resources are you on the look out for in your own career?

    Allies: If someone is not a member of an under-represented group and wants to be a supportive ally, what can they do? (Mentorship is a the first answer that springs to mind for me.) How have you been specifically helped or supported by an ally?

    Industry Insiders: are you concerned about issues of under representation in your own career or organization? What do you do about it? What resources can you recommend? Especially if you are a reader /  manager / agent / producer, do you use blind reading or have processes in place to deal with implicit bias?

    Go on, folks: impress me. Be your awesome selves and let’s have an on-topic, productive conversation about what we can do about under-representation in screenwriting.

    • This topic was modified 2 years ago by  Shaula Evans. Reason: edited to add questions re: allies and industry insiders

    Bitc H Pack

    Great topic to bring up. Do women leave themselves out of the cultural playing field by not entering contest for various reasons? Not enough confidence or brashness?

    Interesting examinations in other fields: female econ writers: &  in terms of female sci-fi writers:


    TA Snyder

    It’s an interesting topic, with many rooms.

    Selling a spec ultimately comes down to risk/reward analysis, and the numbers are not only severely skewed towards male writers, but stories featuring male leads. I’ve noted multiple examples over the past 6 months in which “tougher sell” is slapped onto almost any non-romcom script that features a female protagonist.

    In the realm of the ever-hot Thriller, featuring a female protagonist is almost always met with the note: “This will be a trickier sell.” Or: “This could be an issue.” It’s only an issue until the right people share your vision, stride courageously past the gender marketing data, and suddenly there’s a new character in the public conscience such as RIPLEY or STARLING.

    Almost every example I can think of in which a female lead broke through gender AND genre conventions in such male-dominated realms as Thriller, Sci-Fi or Action were scribed by men. Coincidence? The cause? Taken case by case, the elements may shift slightly with justifiable explanations, but the question persists: is the same opportunity there for female screenwriters?

    If one were to ask most execs to name the best female screenwriters, I’m fairly certain names like Ephron, Fey and Cody will dominate the responses. You can easily track the genre expectations with gender in most cases. A fascinating wildcard, and from many decades ago, is Leigh Brackett, who wrote or co-wrote such classics as THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, RIO BRAVO and THE BIG SLEEP.


    Shaula Evans

    @ The Bitc H Pack –  Wonderful to see you here. Thank you for jumping in!

    Thank you for the links! I wonder sometimes as a woman if I’m an idiot not to be writing under a male pseudonym, but I’m just pigheaded that way.

    Any discussion of the role of confidence in participation is incomplete for me without mention of impostor syndrome, and its relationship with internalized oppression and stereotype threat. (Some linky goodness back at you!)

    @ TA – Thank you for the thoughtful comments. I am embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of Leigh Brackett before. I have homework to do.

    I admit that as a woman writer (and, in a different way, as an immigrant) I look at the stories I want to tell and then I ask “Can I get away with this?” There’s a subtle difference between “is this a saleable spec” and “is this a saleable spec for this writer”. And I feel torn between internalized oppression and being business-savvy. I don’t think there’s a single right strategy and at an individual level, writers need to make their own call. (Which is yet again why I’m far more interested in systematic solutions than approaches that rely solely on individual effort: individual effort isn’t scalable.)

    I also want to point out we have a good collection of Black Film & Screenwriting Resources here at the Board and we are very happy to compile and host other lists of resources if people want to make suggestions in this thread.


    TA Snyder

    The above link applies to the realm of screenwriting quite well.


    Shaula Evans

    Thank you for the video, TA. Here’s a link to a transcript of Sheryl Sandberg’s talk from the TED site, too: Sheryl Sandberg: Why we have too few women leaders (the transcript is available at the link via a pulldown menu under the bottom right corner of the video).


    Jay Finklestein

    Do women leave themselves out of the cultural playing field by not entering contest for various reasons? Not enough confidence or brashness?

    We’re assuming that paying money for a minuscule chance at a longshot opportunity to enjoy a brief shining moment in an endeavor that will almost certainly not turn into a career is a good thing. I read that statistic and think, “Why are men such fucking dupes?” God’s gift to cinema, that’s us.

    Yeah. Seen this conversation come and go. The real question is, Why are Jews over-represented?

    (And just FYI, that’s not mansplaining. That’s mannexation.)


    Shaula Evans

    Ha! I can always count on you to re-frame the conversation in an interesting way, Jay.

    I know it’s delivered in your signature snarky charm, but you do raise a good point about contests. Let’s break that down:

    1. Men enter contests in larger numbers.

    2. Women enter contests in smaller numbers.

    3. The world leaps to the assumption that women must be doing it wrong (i.e., that men are doing it right).

    It reminds me of the big Internet brouhaha a few years back when tech pundit Clay Shirky made comments about how he worked with young men who were brash, pushy, and overstated their credentials on resumes and in interviews–and the conclusion he drew was that women don’t get ahead in business because they don’t act like immature, arrogant jerks.  There was a lot of wagon-circling in that discussion, which went on for a long time, before anyone really managed to raise a voice above the noise to say, “Hey, is telling anyone, male or female, to act like an immature, arrogant, self-aggrandizing jerk what we really want to be doing?”–and those voices were mainly (but not exclusively) in pink ghettoes of the Internet.

    I am NOT drawing a direct correlation (i.e., entering contests does not equal being an immature jerk, although contest readers no doubt have their own share of Dunning-Kruger effect horror stories).

    I AM applauding you for the insight that if men and women are doing things differently, that doesn’t automatically mean women are doing it wrong.

    I think you may also get a gold star for coining the term “mannexation”!


    Shaula Evans

    If anyone here is on Facebook, The Bitch Pack is holding an interesting parallel conversation there, at THIS LINK.


    Shaula Evans

    Further to Bitc H Pack’s links on how blind submissions help women economists and sci fi writers, there’s similar research on blind orchestra auditions leads to hiring more women musicians and blind submissions in academic publishing leading to more diversity. (I don’t have a link at hand but will add later if I can.)

    The common ground is that these are measure that help reduce the impact of implicit bias–so a work (or performance) is evaluated on its own merits rather than based on (mis)perceptions about the identity of the author.

    If we have any industry or contest people around, I would really love to hear if you use blind script submissions or if you’d consider experimenting with a blind submission process.  And if you have any experience with blind submissions, I’d love to hear how they worked for you!

    I’d also like to point out that, to their credit, the 2013 Beijing International Screenwriting Competition set up what looks like a blind submissions system, where participants registered their personal information through a web form and uploaded a submission that contained no identifying information. Way to go, BISC, and thank you!

    (Full disclosure: I am familiar with the contest because I entered it. Given the blind submission system, I don’t feel like I’m altering my contest chances by praising them for the system!)

    My understanding is that in the literary world, Submittable (formerly Submishmash) provides a robust, web-based submissions system that can be configured for blind submissions. If we have any literary publishers here, can you comment on whether my understanding is correct? Does anyone in the screenwriting world use this or anything similar?

    Update: @Submittable confirmed the details of their blind submissions option:


    Shaula Evans

    I’m overdue to compile the great diversity resources I follow via @TheBlackBoard on Twitter for our use here, so here we go:

    Inventing the Asian American intellectual culture of tomorrow! Read our mags: The Margins, Open City, & CultureStrike

    Presenting stories conveying the richness & diversity of Asian American exp. by funding, producing, distributing & exhibiting works in film, TV & digital media.

    A 501(c)3 not-for-profit expanding opportunities for contemporary female genre filmmakers, artists, and the public through an array of services.

    The Twitter feed of the Producers Guild of America Diversity Committee – Promoting diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry.

    The University of Southern California’s Women of Cinematic Arts organization. Spreading news about female USC students and alumni! Tweets by

    CAPE is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to advancing diversity, cross-cultural awareness & in entertainment and media since 1991.

    The Organization of Black Screenwriters assists writers in creating screenplays/scripts for film & television helping them present their work to the industry Los Angeles & Worldwide ·

    Working together for a /// Sign up to vote on screenplays for the list here:
    (Go here for our earlier discussion on the Bitch Pack and the Bitch List)

    Many thanks to @Femme_Mal who recommended most of these.

    If you have other recommendations I would love to hear them.


    Scott Myers

    For some historical context, a majority of scenario writers when the film business first began over 100 years ago were women: Gene Gauntier, Anita Loos, Francis Marion, and many others were prominent throughout the silent film era. It helped that perhaps the biggest film star of that time was Mary Pickford and thus it was only natural that she would team up with writers like Marion on movie projects.

    There have been many theories about why this happened. Here’s one: Broadly speaking, men were less well-educated than women. Since men worked and women were responsible for their children’s education, it makes sense that women would have more in the way of learning, one component of which was writing. Thus in the fledgling film industry’s frantic efforts to seek out writers to churn out scenarios to be produced, it was likely that more women than men submitted stories for consideration.

    By the mid-to-late twenties and with the advent of sound in 1927, dialogue became a much more prominent need for the studios. Another generalization, but that’s the time when Hollywood turned toward journalists as writers because of their – presumably – good ear for dialogue, honed by working on the streets. And journalism at that time was largely a male dominated field.Jumping to the present, what caught Franklin’s eye about the current Nicholl numbers and mine as well is the disproportionately low percentage of female writers submitting scripts to the competition. Is this an indication of frustration bordering on hopelessness about the situation in Hollywood? I would hope not. Just in the last 10 days, there have been several notable deals in Hollywood involving women writers:

    Katie Dippold sells untitled action comedy pitch to Chernin Entertainment with Paul Feig attached to direct.

    Helen Schulman adapting her novel “This Beautiful Life” for Killer Films with Susanne Bier to direct.

    Barbara Marshall, 2012 Black List writer (“Peste”) adapting “Exorcism Diaries” for LionsGate/Summit Entertainment.

    Plus the success of movies like Hanna, Salt, and The Hunger Games with strong female leads in action roles is more than just symbolic: Those movies made money. And results like that can change perceptions.I look forward to the conversation and will cross-promote on GITS.


    Barbara Thomas

    Last year I attended the Austin Film Festival for the first time. I sat in on the Women in Film panel (which was held in the smallest room, btw, not even an actual room, a closed off balcony. It was packed.)

    The first thing I observed about the panelists is that they were all nicely dressed and groomed. All wore makeup,  a couple sported killer heels.  You’d think writing is one of the few careers where appearance does not matter, but I’m thinking not.  Maybe they were just dressing up for the festival, but the male screenwriters on the other panels I attended appeared to be wearing whatever garments were closest to their beds when they woke up. (Except Paul Feig. He was impeccable at all times.)

    Anyway, here are some of the things I remember from the panel.  One panelist summed up the whole issue of women in film with a matter of fact “Yes, it will be harder because you are a woman. What can you do about that?   You’ll just have to be better.”

    Another panelist kept insisting the work was all that mattered, but then told a story about attending meeting after meeting with the producers of a certain hit cable show that had no female writers on staff.  You could hear her growing more and more agitated as she went on. They wanted her, they wanted her…and then decided they didn’t want to hire a woman after all. Other TV writers on the panel mentioned that Hispanic women were popular hires at the moment because they were a diversity two-fer.

    An audience member asked if successful women mentored up and comers. The answer was no, not really. The panelists didn’t elaborate, but I had an idea. I used to work in advertising and the other women in my office never ever wanted to be paired up with another woman. Two women become “the girls” and nobody listens to “the girls.”



    Shaula Evans

    Scott, thank you very much for the big picture view.

    I’m familiar with Anita Loos because of the great series you’ve run on Go Into the Story about her book, How to Write Photoplays (which I highly recommend to anyone who doesn’t already know it), but I never knew that women screenwriters played such an important role in early Hollywood and I suspect I’m not alone in that.

    I really appreciate the effort you’ve made to include women screenwriters in your interview series. It’s great to have visible role models and to learn about how they have handled their career challenges.

    You make a great point that money and commercial success changes perceptions in Hollywood. I really hope that the recent string of successful spec script sales by women and strong female protagonists that you cite shake things up and make more room for women, female protagonists, and other under-represented groups.

    In your teaching, online and at UNC, how does the ratio of female to male students break out? Have you seen it change during the course of your teaching career? Are you seeing any interesting changes in the demographics of your students over time?


    Shaula Evans

    Thank you for joining the conversation, Barbara.

    I’m responding to the ideas that you raised below and not necessarily attributing them to you, just to be clear.

    The big thing I take away from your comment is we have got to stop having these conversations in silos, because I see the exact same comments about appearance, being better, mentorship vs competition, diversity scorecards, the whole shebang, in *every* single field I’ve ever followed or been part of. For example, every point you’ve raised is a hot topic online right now for women in academia,  women in tech, and women in business. And I see the same discussions (especially “You’ll just have to be better”) in pretty much every other under-represented community, too. Why are we all trying to reinvent the wheel?

    The “just be better” strategy sounds comforting, but it assumes there’s an underlying meritocracy, while research around implicit bias demonstrates time and time again that bias trumps merit: you can objectively be “the best”, but if no one is actually being objective, it doesn’t help you.

    It also ignores systematic problems and places the responsibility for change on the individual. Just as the way to stop rape is to stop raping women, not telling women to change their clothes, the way to change systematic bias isn’t to tell individuals to try harder.

    Here comes some anecdata (sorry! if I can find a good source I will site): my personal experience has been that the level of competition vs cooperation & mentorship between women is influenced by a number of variables, including field of endeavour, generation, and location. It’s hard to have a meaningful conversation without controlling for some of those factors.  And there are also people very happy to perpetuate a narrative of “women can’t work together”, without worrying about pesky considerations like data at all.

    It’s a tough topic. I think it is realistic and helpful for women who are accomplished in the field to be honest about their experiences with women who are trying to break in, especially younger women. At the same time, it is easy to share the negative realities in a way that perpetuates stereotype threat and/or turns women off from the field.  (There are some big discussions going on about this with women in STEM fields.)

    What can we do? Well, whether you’re a man or a woman, you can support other writers through individual mentorship relationships or by contributing through a writing group or community (like we have here).  That’s a small thing in some ways but it does scale in its own way.

    I wish there were easy answers.

    On the positive side, I’m glad to hear that Austin had a Women in Film panel. I hope the great turnout will encourage them to move you out of a broom closet and into a big room next time.

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