Why Television Writing Staffs Lack Diversity

photo1Originally posted at Ms. in the Biz

It’s staffing season for television, and many of us are playing close attention to gender and race of writers getting hired. A report from the Writer’s Guild of America revealed that in the 2011-2012 season, female writers made up only 30.5% of TV staffs. Racial minorities fared even worse, comprising only 15.6%. (A UCLA study based on publicly available data put the number for women at 32.8% in broadcast television and 27.1% in cable. That study found that only 7.4% of cable writers are minorities while only 10% of broadcast writers are.)

A number of causes collude to keep staffs primarily white and male, with one of the big ones being cumulative advantage. Originally an economic theory, cumulative advantage posits that “once a social agent gains a small advantage over other agents, that advantage will compound over time into an increasingly larger advantage.” In other words, the rich get richer. As social theory, cumulative advantage is what creates white, male privilege. When young white boys are encouraged by their parents, teachers, and communities to aim high while girls are told to focus on marriage and minorities on service-industry jobs, when white boys are praised over their lifetime for whatever they do while the hard work of the girls and minorities around them goes unnoticed, and when they are put in leadership positions more readily than girls and minorities, they begin their careers as grown men with the advantage of an impressive resume and an unparalleled sense of confidence. Women and minorities with the same levels of experience and confidence have inevitably had to work twice as hard with half the support.

In television writing, white male advantage continues to accumulate as they find themselves more easily staffed, more quickly promoted, and more readily offered opportunities to develop new shows than women and minorities. Though diversity programs have begun to open doors for new writers, the best known of which provides a financial incentive to shows to staff a diverse writer by paying that writer’s salary, these programs rely on the idea that the opportunity will be the beginning of an accumulation of advantage for that writer. In a recent interview, Director of Diversity at the WGA, Kimberly Myers, told me that success of these programs depends on the extent to which showrunners and producers support diversity hires:

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 are in the ranks, are you developing pilots with them, and if not why not? It only works if the writers are properly integrated into the staff and not marginalized and supported—it’s a mentoring business, that’s how the business works.

Another reason more women and minorities don’t get staffed and promoted at the same rates as white men is the idea of “fit.” When a show is hiring, they’re looking for someone who fits into the culture of their writer’s room. In a recent article on how this phenomenon works in newsrooms, writer Aboubacar Ndiaye put it this way:

Fit is the unquantifiable variable which makes you think that you will be able to gchat stupid gifs with someone, or drink craft brewed beer/fair trade coffee/single terroir wine with them, or bemoan the sorry state of the local sports franchise with them. It is the bro/homegirl quality, the affability borne out of similar backgrounds and similar experiences. The truth is that we organize our lives around this feeling. We seek spaces that provide the maximum amount of conviviality, from the right kind of city, to the right kind of neighborhood, to the right kind of friends and romantic partners. But when this ethos is transferred into the workplace, it leads not just to a comfortable environment, but to an exclusionary one and a moribund one.

Even once a woman or minority writer has met the “good fit” requirement, actually being in the room requires that they continue to prove their fit daily. In an article on The XX Factor/Slate, Dan Harmon (Community) said that in his experience, female staffers “do more dick jokes than anybody, because they’ve had to survive, they have to prove, coming in the door, that they’re not dainty.” Jill Soloway (Six Feet Under) shared that, “When I used to be in writers’ rooms with men, I would always try to be the most inappropriate person in the room, to tell the dirtiest jokes. It was a way of communicating that I could play with the boys. It made it harder for them to count me out.”

But this approach can backfire. Whereas men who are crass are seen as funny, crass women and minorities can be dismissed as inappropriate. Men who speak up about and defend their ideas are seen as visionary, whereas women and minorities who do the same thing are often seen as pushy or, when it’s a woman, bitchy. Being the only woman or minority in the room puts a person in the position of having to choose between a rock and hard place: S/he can conform to fit in or be themselves, but either way, s/he will face resistance from someone.

Imagine if all the energy these writers have to spend fitting in could be spent on, you know, writing. Imagine how much less time these writers would have to spend navigating sex and race if they weren’t the only ones of their kind in the room. Imagine how much better television would be.

Unfortunately, the continued lack of diversity in writer’s rooms makes me think too many people lack the ability to imagine that. So next time you find yourself in conversation with a showrunner or producer who just doesn’t see why having a diverse writer’s room is important, here’s a few reasons that may speak to them on their level.

 10 Reasons Your Show Should Staff a Diverse Writer

10. Because they generally earn less than white men, they can save you a lot of money.

9. Women will inevitably bring moderate to major room-odor improvements.

8. When viewers of color get pissed that the one character you wrote that represents them is an offensive stereotype, your minority writer can explain why they’re so angry. Better yet, s/he may be able to keep you from making that mistake in the first place.

7. When women viewers get pissed because all of your characters are defined entirely as mothers, wives, nurses, or sluts, women staffers can explain why that sucks. Better yet, she may be able to keep you from making that mistake in the first place.

6. Chicks dig dudes who hire chicks.

5. Being able to say, “Some of my best writers are minorities,” upon committing a racial faux pas can get you out of some sticky binds.

4. Prostate exam jokes: Cliché. Gynecological exam jokes on the other hand …

3. White dudes making jokes about people of other races: Not cool. People of color making jokes about white people: Hilarious.

2. Even some zombies are women and minorities.

1. Women and minorities represent a paltry percentage of writing staffers but are far and away the majority of the viewing audience, and their jokes, stories, and perspectives make for damn good television.

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