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Under-Representation in Screenwriting

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This topic contains 83 replies, has 22 voices, and was last updated by  Shaula Evans 4 months, 3 weeks ago.

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  • #8097

    Femme_Mal
    Participant

    I’m going to hazard a guess I’m one of the oldest community members here; I’ve seen a lot of change, both good and bad, when it comes to diversity and inclusion across a number of industries. The topic of under-representation has played and continues to play a huge role  in my career.

    This article (and others like it) tells me the entertainment industry has been in a negative spiral: Why So Few Women Are Writing for Television (Jezebel.com, 09-SEP-2011)

    Validated by additional research for years 2011 and 2012 at the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.

    Thank you, Bitc H Pack for the links to demographics on women economics writers and women sci-fi writers; I can tell you from experience (and you’ve all likely seen from recent news) that the information technology industry is no different and suffers from rampant sexism.

    It’s not as if we haven’t been trying. Let me be candid and tell you that Sheryl Sandberg’s TED speech (h/t TA Snyder) and book, Lean In, tell us nothing that we didn’t already know AND haven’t already said. I was a participant in diversity organizations for two Fortune 100 companies, a founding member of a diversity network at one of those firms, and we knew everything Sandberg said and wrote.

    She’s absolutely correct about her three points, but there’s far more to breaking through the glass ceilings and crystal silos. Much more.

    1) Get outside your comfort zone.

    Sandberg’s comments about women and competition are based in women’s inherent risk aversion. We are cautious for many reasons; some are culturally reinforced, some are not, but if we’re going to get ahead it means learning that risk is normal, failure likely, and tomorrow is another day.

    Staying inside your comfort zone reduces risk, but it also means taking a back seat to the persons who are willing to bet the farm.

    This is not just about women, either. Minority groups tend to “circle the wagons” and insulate themselves with people of similar heritage because it’s less risky.[1] Find ways to break out of the circle. Be prepared for some bashing by those who may see you as getting ahead of your self, too big for your britches, uppity.

    For women this means keeping in mind the adage, “Well-behaved woman seldom make history.”

    2) Find mentors and advocates.

    Women and many minority groups do not have a tradition within their own communities of mentorship and networking with mentors and advocates who assist them. Men do and have, and it’s a reason why they continue to hire from within their group; they see other men in their network. Find mentors and advocates who are willing to educate you about topics that aren’t taught in school, and are willing to help you at industry events.

    Be prepared to be appropriately grateful, but never put on the kneepads; return the favor when possible by recommending your mentor/advocates. At some point in their careers they will face their own issues and need your support (ageism is assured if they are not a god in the industry).

    3) Look for supportive organizations/associations.

    Depending on your personal identity, look for groups with whom you identify; they will provide the back-patting you need. But remember you must take risks; find other groups with you do not have a natural affinity and participate. Think of this as cross-pollination; it works on memetic material just as it does for genetics.

    And do take an active leadership role! As a political activist for the last eight years, I learned a key reason why our system is screwed up AND why anyone has a chance to make a difference: Finding people willing to lead is difficult! In some cases, leaders are simply the people who show up, time and again, and are committed to the cause. Show up; if they need a board or committee member, put your hand up (and keep it up as Sandberg says). In a leadership position, issues and resources tend to flow toward you — this is a good thing.

    For women in particular: you will have to reach for other organizations that don’t cater to women because there are rather few that support women in screenwriting and film as compared to other minority groups. This is an opportunity as well — blaze the trail and establish a new one.

    4) Be prepared to think outside the box and work outside the industry.

    For all our concern about inequity in screenwriting and other industries, there are some phenomenal things happening outside the black hole and you can take advantage of it.

    Example: Women will create over half of the 9.72 million new small business jobs expected to be created by 2018… (Forbes, 08-JUN-2012) — women and minorities have been the engine of small business growth for more than two decades in the U.S.

    As Sandberg noted, less than 20% of large corporations are led by women; their boards of directors aren’t diverse, either. But women create and run businesses, bypassing bottlenecks to their own success in doing so. Ditto for other minority groups.

    Looking for a writing gig outside the traditional entertainment industry, up to and including starting your own business, could be an answer to your own needs; it can also satisfy the entertainment industry’s need for a portfolio of experience and/or proof of past successes that may open doors.

    Keep in mind that ALL industries based on intellectual property are in the middle of a paradigm shift, and aiming for old-school industry could actually work against you in the long run. Think of the internet-based program, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries — this is the future of visual entertainment.

     

    At this point you’re probably asking, “Who the hell are you, and what makes you qualified to say anything about this topic?”

    I’m a 50-something Asian/Pacific Islander/white woman with a background in engineering and information technology, manufacturing, and service businesses; I’ve dealt for three decades with issues of sexism, race, and now ageism. I’m raising a daughter and a son who watch me closely for clues about how to make it through life, even if they aren’t going to actually listen.

    And because I’ve got the much-bruised ass and the hardened brass ovaries to “just do it” after leaving the corporate sector, I’ve already written and produced advertisements, social media content, and investigative reporting for nonprofit organizations.

    I’m putting the cart before the horse because I’m only now learning about scriptwriting, and I am coming to the process and business as a neophyte.

    A virgin, if you will, all over again.

    Bring it on.

    _____

    [1] Jay Finkelstein — this is why there is a concentration of similar people in the industry; it’s a self-reinforcing system based on existing mentoring/advocacy networks, combined with “circling the wagons” effect.

    [2] In response to Shaula Evans’ and Barbara Thomas’ comments upthread and “conversations inside the silo” — take careful note of Sandberg’s audience in the TED video. Silo, right there, and she never points it out. Let’s ask different questions: Where are the men? Why aren’t they expected to be present and learning about diversity issues? Why aren’t shareholders demanding this since businesses with more diverse leadership are also more profitable?

    [Edited 10:31 pm EDT for grammatical boo-boos]

    #8099

    Shaula Evans
    Keymaster

    Submittable got back to me about their blind submissions option and I have updated that section of the discussion HERE.

    #8100

    Barbara Thomas
    Participant

    Oh I agree with you Shaula. Several women in the room at that panel were not at all impressed with the advice to “just be better”.  That just doesn’t cut it anymore. Younger women especially did not accept that as a valid approach.

    And on a more positive note, before I started screenwriting, I wrote short stories and novels, and on that end, I met  far more women than men among writers, agents and editors. On the other hand, there is still the “Women’s Fiction” ghetto to contend with…

     

     

    #8103

    Shaula Evans
    Keymaster

    Femme_Mal, thank you for the thoughtful contribution to the discussion. (Plus it’s a pleasure to see you here! Check out this link if you’d like help to get yourself oriented on the site in general: Welcome New Visitors.)

    Some good news: you aren’t even close to the oldest member here or even in this discussion. We’ve got a wonderfully diverse and international community with a wide range of ages represented. That said, you do have a longer first-hand perspective than some people in the conversation and I very much appreciate your contribution in that context.

    And speaking of our international community, I apologize to everyone that this conversation has been a little US-centric so far. I’m currently based in the US and these are the resources that I’m most familiar with. I would *love* to hear how issues of representation play out in your local markets, wherever you are, and if you can recommend effective or strategies or experiments to deal with increasing filmmaking diversity from your own back yard.

    Thank you for the links, Femme Mal. The Sundance Institute just put out some interesting research, too, and I’ll track that down and add it to the discussion later tonight (or, depending on how late it gets here, when I can find it).

    I may be wrong, but I feel like one difference between the tech world and screenwriting world is that geek culture has a strong self-impression of meritocracy that doesn’t necessarily measure up to its reality, and that can create some particular friction in the tech world: it is hard to address and even just to publicly discuss a problem that officially doesn’t exist and that contradicts some of your community’s core self-conceptions. In contrast, my impression is that Hollywood doesn’t have quite the same “official reality / official narrative” problem and there’s a little more space for this kind of discussion–although I’m very much an outsider and I may be wrong on that point.

    Re: comfort zones. I am happy to see women, or members of any under represented group, put themselves forward more aggressively and assertively in any career. I also recognize the limitations of solutions based on individual initatives. And I’m leery of solutions that, at some level, boil down to: “act more like [men]“, where “men” is a sloppy short hand for “the dominant group in this field”.

    I’m with you 100% on the Laurel Thatcher Ulrich quote. :)

    Re: Mentors & Advocates – I’m also with you 100% on the need to lend a helping hand to others. I’ll add that if you want to be a good intersectionality ally as well as an advocate, look to mentor people outside your most narrowly-defined identity affiliation and give some help to other under represented people, too. In other words, be the mentor to others that you wish you’d always had yourself. (I can say that with integrity: I’ve been a mentor to an awful lot of people in a wide range of fields in my day.)

    Re: Look for Support – Yes, please! Thank you, Femme Mal, for the resources you shared when I put out the call to help the API writer in New Mexico the other day.  I am SO HAPPY to aggregate and host these kinds of resources here: if anyone reading this thread can recommend good sources of support, please post them.

    You wrote: “This is an opportunity as well — blaze the trail and establish a new one.” Amen.  If you can’t find what you need, build it yourself. (For example, there are a lot of factors that contributed to the creation of The Black Board and one of them was my personal desire to find a place on the Internet for on-topic, respectful, professional discussions about screenwriting in a safe an supportive space. So, with the help of some fantastic people, I went ahead and built it.) My personal experience with “building new things”, which I’ve done once or twice, is that the people who have built effective organizations from scratch themselves are A) incredibly busy, and B) generally still happy to answer questions and help you get your own worthwhile project off the ground as long as you are professional and respect their time. (Sending hand-written thank yous in a timely fashion doesn’t hurt, either.)

    Re: Creating your own opportunities – We’ve got a lot of people around here with interest and different levels of experience in writing and creating short films, web series, and also other forms of trans media. As you point out, there’s a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor of whole new forms of media and distribution, and first mover advantage should not be underestimated.

    Back to your post: I wasn’t thinking “who the hell are you,” as I generally avoid credentialism games–I’m interested in the validity of what you say–but I was thinking, “what an interesting and articulate person; I’d like to know more”. ;) I do hope you stick around and join more of the discussions, as your time permits; it’s a pleasure to have your company here and we’re very happy to support you in your new screenwriting adventures.

    I feel like I ought to point out the obvious about my own comment regarding silos before someone else does it for me: there ARE people who discuss this stuff outside of silos. Some of them are called feminists! You may have heard of them… Some of them are activists in other communities covered by the big Intersectionality umbrella. And speaking of uppity, when we get all of those people talking and listening to each other and working together, that’s when we really start to make things happen.

    Femme Mal, thank you again for the comment. It’s a great contribution to the discussion and I really appreciate your time and thoughts.

    #8104

    Shaula Evans
    Keymaster

    @Barbara – as much as the curmudgeons like to complain about Millennials, as a group they seem to be a pretty effective group of boat rockers. Maybe this generation of young women, and young people, will stop accepting a lot of the things we’ve put up with in our lifetimes and create a new wave of positive change. My fingers are crossed.

    #8105

    Shaula Evans
    Keymaster

    As I read through these fantastic comments (thank you, everyone), I realize I also set my original questions too narrowly.

    Let’s open this up to a bigger discussion, including:

    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?

    (I’ll add these questions to the top of the thread for people just joining the discussion, too.)

    #8107

    Shaula Evans
    Keymaster

    In the realm of “create your own opportunities”, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the amazing work by Claire Parker and the Trans Comedy Award Team.

    I’ll contact Claire to make sure I’ve got the details right, but as I understand it, the Trans Comedy Award came about when Trans Media Watch, a charity dedicated to improving media coverage of trans and intersex issues, paired up with On Road Media, a not-for profit that works with excluded and misrepresented communities to look for solutions to social problems using the web, technology and the media. Together in the winter of 2011/2012 they organised an event which came to be known as “Trans Camp”, to come up with initiatives to encourage a more balanced, respectful depiction of transgendered people.

    That team partnered with the BBC Writer’s Room to create the Trans Comedy Award, to provide an opportunity for writers to be creative and to show Transgendered people in a more affirmative light. (For more details, in addition to the links above, see our discussion on the Trans Comedy Award.)

    The very short version of this story is that a group of people who wanted to see better representation on screen and better opportunities behind the screen got organized together to do something about it–something pretty darn wonderful at that.

    Full disclosure: I entered a sitcom pilot in the contest but that’s not why I’m excited about it, The Trans Comedy Award is such a worthwhile and well-executed project, and the organization has been first class from start to finish. It is a GREAT example for anyone who wants to organize their own initiative along similar lines.

    Resources

    Helping the media report on transgender issues with accuracy, dignity & respect. Helping trans people who are receiving media attention. We tackle the bullies! http://transmediawatch.org/

    Supports fairness & inclusion for marginalised communities using media & web (e.g. , , http://t.co/7ll2WoSd, ) http://www.onroadmedia.org.uk

    Stand by for action. Anything could happen in the next half hour. The opening quote from Stingray and so apt for this comedy script competition. #TransComedy

    #8109

    Femme_Mal
    Participant

    In response to Jay Finklestein (April 10, 2013 at 7:47 pm) and Shaula’s follow-up with regards to competitions/contests –

    I believe the imbalance in women’s participation lies in both risk-aversion, and in the lack of mentoring/networking resources. Without coaching about the opportunities and the process for application, women may perceive greater risk in competing and be more reluctant to participate.

    An additional challenge I didn’t point out earlier which may also increase women’s participation is the lack of institutional knowledge in a readily accessible format/location for those who are without mentors/advocates. Without a general understanding of where to look for opportunities like competitions/contests, they may go untapped by the persons who need them the most.

    #8110

    Jay Finklestein
    Participant

    I have many friends who make their livings writing women’s fiction, and they’d be surprised to hear that they’re being ghettoized.

    Publishing is an interesting counter-example. A few decades ago, it was as hostile to women as film/TV is today. But between me and my wife, we’ve had eight agents in the past twenty years; seven of them were women. We’ve had 15 books published by 8 publishers, and seven of our nine editors were women. Three of the three (and arguably four of the four) most recent worldwide publishing phenomena were written by women, and two of them (Fifty Shades and Twilight) are read almost exclusively by women.

    What accounts for this sea change? I’m not sure, but I suspect that the industry started changing with the emergence of mass-market romance titles. For a long time (and possibly still), one out of every two books that sold were romance, and 99% of the romance buyers were women. Today, the last statistic I saw was that 60% of all book buyers are women. Book clubs are almost exclusively female, and most book-related websites (with the exception of a few, fairly desperate-sounding ‘boys-read-too!’ sites) are dominated by women (such as goodreads, and the fanfic and slash-fic sites).

    So clearly there’s a big element of ‘serve the customer.’ Also, publishing has been transforming from a fairly-well-paid and moderately-high-status industry to a poorly-paid and lower-status one. There’s probably some element of men simultaneously finding it a less attractive field while women are finding it more welcoming.

    I guess Step One is ‘start a studio that releases a steady stream of profitable films explicitly for women …’

    #8114

    Shaula Evans
    Keymaster

    More resources:

    Official Twitter account for the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. For more info please visit: http://www.seejane.org and http://www.facebook.com/GDIGM

    Many thanks to @SamuelWrite for the recommendation.

    #8117

    debbiemoon
    Participant

    A friend of mine is writing a PhD on the evolution of the screenwriting manual, and his feeling is that screenwriting was considered ‘women’s work’ in the silent era because it was so low status. When sound came in, suddenly the words were an important part of the process, and screenwriting shifted towards being a male profession…

    My random observations form the UK film and television industry:

    Over here, huge number of producers (particularly in TV) and script editors, development execs etc are female. To the point where I was talking to a young male producer at my agent’s Christmas party when someone else came to join the conversation – and admitted to being startled to discover I was the writer and he the producer!

    The prolific and writer-consuming British soap opera industry, with its dozens of story liners and script editors per series, is also largely staffed by women. So clearly women are going into production, editing, and other creative roles that allow full-time employment, rather than the uncertainty of freelance life as a writer.

    Could this be related to the divorce rate? A woman who’s supporting her children alone, or who had that experience earlier in life, might opt for security – and once you have a steady job, it’s hard to give it up…

     

     

    #8120

    Lydia Mulvey
    Moderator

    This is one of the most enlightening and non-hysterical discussion about under-representation I’ve ever read and I’m bowled-over by and in awe of the knowledge and experience of every contributor.

    It’s a complex and often opaque topic and I don’t have much to add that hasn’t already been said.

    But to go back to what Barbara Thomas described at the Women in Film festival at Austin. The one bit that struck me was this:

    “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.””

    My immediate response to that is: Better than who? And who decides if you’re better? Will it still be a male producer/executive etc, sitting in his patriarchal ivory tower?

    This blase response merely serves to heat up the gender war. But to my mind, this is the wrong approach.

    We shouldn’t have to be striving to be “better” just based on our gender. We should be striving to be “better” in order to tell the most fantastic stories, no matter who we are or what sex we are.

     

    To echo was Debbie Moon said, I’ve also encountered vast numbers of women in other areas of the industry. My agent (alas no longer my agent but that’s another story) was female. When I used to act, most of the agents I encountered were female. (Although most directors were male.)

    Many art department people are female. Costume and make-up draw more women than men for obvious reasons.

    I often wonder if there’s as much of a problem as we think there is. Are women simply less drawn to the typical leadership roles of directing and producing and instead more content to work in the areas that allow greater flexibility for the reasons Debbie describes?

    In terms of screenwriting, I’ve never found many obstacles standing in my way. Then again, I’ve never worked in Hollywood so obviously I have only my own very limited experience to draw upon.

    I also suspect that if you are a mother (and let’s face it, in general, women still provide the lion’s share of care for kids), screenwriting can be a difficult job to have as it demands that you spend large portions of your day locked in a room on your own, something children won’t stand for.

    Finally, I once read a quote from Sharon Stone waaayyy back in the 90′s (I think it was when Sliver was released) and it stuck with me. She said “If you have an attitude and a vagina in this town (Hollywood) then you’re in trouble”.

    I think progress has definitely been made since then but from what I can gather, there is a way to go yet.

    #8130

    anniewood
    Participant

    i wonder if this is the same for all contests, festivals and fellowships? are there less female writers out there? is it that simple? i don’t know. all i know is that when i first got into voice overs, as an actress, i was told that it will be very difficult because mostly men did voice overs (17 years ago) especially for the announcer roles. i didn’t listen, i just went about the business of being me. within months i had booked my first of several announcer campaigns. that’s how i deal with all of this news. the women who want to be part of a world that often seems to give men an unfair advantage need to just keep creating and showing up and not get bogged down by the unfairness of it all.  things will change as we change it. and this topic being tweeted about and discussed by men and women, like i see here – is a great start! so, thank you for getting this conversation ball rolling.

    see you in the writer’s room.

    love and peace,

    annie

    http://www.anniewood.com

    #8132

    Lydia Mulvey
    Moderator

    Hi annie and welcome to the forum.

    “i wonder if this is the same for all contests, festivals and fellowships? are there less female writers out there? is it that simple?”

     

    I think it just might be. I’ve met far more male screenwriters than female. But as I said in my post, women are involved in many other areas of the industry. I do wonder why there are not as many camera women as men though.

    However, I suspect that women shy away from technical jobs because (at least as far as I see it) of the innate societal belief that such jobs are more suitable for men.

     

    “i was told that it will be very difficult because mostly men did voice overs (17 years ago) especially for the announcer roles. i didn’t listen, i just went about the business of being me. within months i had booked my first of several announcer campaigns.”

    I do think a lot of women have success simply because they refuse to believe it when they’re told they can’t participate.

     

    “the women who want to be part of a world that often seems to give men an unfair advantage need to just keep creating and showing up and not get bogged down by the unfairness of it all.”

     

    I think there is truth to this. Just do what you want anyway and keep pushing the barriers. Eventually you’ll get a break or meet someone who can help you get a break.

     

    #8145

    debbiemoon
    Participant

    Just want to weigh in on the importance of mentoring: my first TV credit came about because a female series creator took a specific decision to mentor a female writer. And I’ll be eternally grateful for it. Some time soon, I hope to return the favour…

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