Why are there fewer female scriptwriters in the film industry?

Originally I planned to research female scriptwriters to learn if it’s easier for UK women to break into TV scriptwriting compared to film. In May 2015, European and US media coverage related to discrimination and the lack of opportunities shifted my focus to explore the stories women tell. However, after conducting interviews in the industry, the issue of women being underrepresented became a topic worth exploring.

The Respondents

The six scriptwriters interviewed were sourced via Twitter and previously unknown to me. All women are involved in the film industry as a scriptwriter, script editor, script supervisor, or script consultant. Four live in the US (New York, Kentucky, Boston, and Los Angeles) and two are UK-based (Bristol and London). All interviews were conducted over Skype and audio recorded. All respondents gave permission to use their names.

Some general characteristics:

  • All have an undergraduate degree, and two have their Masters.
  • Half of the respondents have children, ranging from very young to adult.
  • All are self-employed or working full time in the media industry.
  • Three have independently directed, written and produced their own films (two fiction, one documentary).

This analysis quotes from these published interviews:

The interviews with Vicki Peterson (@storycatharsis) and Erica Tremblay (@EricaTremblay) are pending publication to this blog. Both women were interviewed via Skype on 5 June 2015.

In addition to the primary research, I sourced secondary material, which may be of interest to some (see this selective bibliography).

While this analysis focuses on women, gender is only one of several marginalised groups not fairly represented behind the scenes. The specific issues of gender and diversity are too broad to be discussed here.

Female Screenwriters Today

In October 2014, the Third World Conference of Screenwriters (WCOS) passed two resolutions, one stemming from the global lack of female scriptwriters:

“Statistics from writers’ organisations around the world show clearly that women writers are under-employed. We write fewer scripts, receive fewer commissions, have shorter careers and earn less than our male colleagues. Women have the talent, experience and ambition to participate as equals in every aspect of the industry. What stands in our way is institutional gender bias.”

The WCOS resolution shows there’s no improvement since a 2006 study by Alice Sinclair, Emma Pollard and Helen Wolfe (Scoping Study into the Lack of Women Screenwriters in the UK). The authors’ conclusions are based on data analysed from the early 2000s:

“The only available evidence came from international research, which showed a marked imbalance in the proportion of screenwriters who are female in a number of countries, including the USA, Australia and Denmark, suggesting that the situation is not unique to the UK.” (p. 14)

Statistics from a 2014 US study by Dr. Martha M. Lauzen, Executive Director at the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, confirm there’s no significant changes for writers in the US industry since 1998, when these data were first collected. For the top 250 films last year, only 11% of writers on the projects were women. Although this is a 1% increase compared to 2013, it is a 2% decrease compared to 1998. Put another way, in 2014 seventy-nine (79%) of the Hollywood films had no female writers.

So why do these statistics prevail?

From speaking to the respondents and reviewing the literature, three reasons emerged as to why this gender imbalance still exists and that impact the success of women in this sector. These differences include:

  • Lower self esteem and confidence surrounding the business of scriptwriting.
  • More women being in the primary caregiver role.
  • Institutional bias.

As with most research of this type, the following discussion is a generalisation. This is not a scientific study and all respondent’s opinions are their own within the context of their experiences.

Politely Building Confidence

A general consensus from those interviewed highlights that women have a lack of confidence and low self-esteem, behaviours that can contribute to why women are not as successful as male scriptwriters:

“I find that women aren’t very confident and don’t believe in themselves; they don’t grab onto opportunities like male writers do. For example, a male writer’s script might be rejected, but when they’re asked to show something else they send it right away, whereas a woman only hears the negative and doesn’t follow up” (Lucy V. Hay).

Vicki, who works with both male and female scriptwriters, concurred:

“A man will write something that is first draft quality. He will have the confidence that he can turn in something that’s not perfect, whereas I see a lot more women struggle to make something 100% perfect before they get feedback or show anyone” (Vicki Peterson).

Anne-Cecile and P.J. both commented on women being too nice when it comes to business dealings:

“I think women are too nice, too forgiving. It’s a business contract; you have to take the emotion out of it. And yes you deserve it. It’s OK if they don’t like it [your writing], especially if you have that contract in place. When more women start behaving this way, we’ll get more respect in the industry” (Anne-Cecile Ville).

“There is an inclination for women to tell girls to be nice. I often tell young women on my set you don’t have to smile and put up with that, you don’t need to be mean or be a bitch. Most of the time when someone is called a bitch they are standing up for themselves” (P.J. Woodside).

More Flexibility Needed for the Primary Caregivers

The challenges surrounding child care can have a negative impact on access to networking and training opportunities. Lucy pointed out that one of the reasons the London Screenwriters’ Festival (LSF) had a 50/50 balance of delegates in 2014 is related to the organisers being aware of this issue.

“Previous festivals like LSF were held during the week, which made it difficult for many women to attend. We make sure our festival is on the weekend” (Lucy V. Hay).

Other choices women make include starting their own business. Vicki Peterson and her business partner Barbara Nicolosi started Catharsis three years ago. Vicki says it is partly in response to the inflexible nature of the industry.

“As a woman with children, people [in Los Angeles] are always saying, “if you want to work in TV you’ll never see your family again”.

Institutional Bias

The WCOS resolutions clearly state that the gender imbalance is directly related to institutional bias. This issue is not unique to the film industry, there are many examples where inclusion of women is still a work in progress. On the surface it can seem as though progress is being made, but when examined carefully, as with this sector, it is often revealed to have stalled. Although reports, studies and news articles continue to be published pointing out the problems, change at a societal level inevitably requires both male and female attitudes and mores to shift over more than a couple of generations.

Both Vicki and Erica gave examples of how this bias about a woman’s place in the world impacts opportunities and feeds into the issues of self-esteem and confidence.

“The stakes are higher for women to have to prove themselves, whereas for men it’s understood that there’s room to grow [when embarking on a project]. There are more opportunities for a man to work his way up, whereas for women they have to prove they’re at the top of their game before they even get a chance to enter the industry. Women buy into this, it is not just men” (Vicki Peterson).

“People will offer my [male] producing partner a business card but not offer one to me….is it so hard to imagine that a woman can be the director of a film?” (Erica Tremblay).

Moving Forward

Women keen to embark on a career in screenwriting can learn from the women already in the industry. Some ways to build confidence and business skills can emerge from mentoring programs, and as more role models are available (see the bibliography for examples).

Being cognisant and flexible with parents by having alternatives in networking events/festivals as well as more patience and understanding are also key to helping this and the next generations make it the norm instead of the exception to the rule that both men and women write the media presented to us.

Finally, Vicki touched on something that Salma Hayek spoke about at the Women in Motion panels at Cannes:

“The only thing we can do is show them we are an economic force,” said the actress-producer-director quoted in a Hollywood Reporter article by Tatiana Siegel. “Nothing else will move them. … The minute they see money, things will be instantaneously different. … Show them the money.”

Vicki and Barbara Nicolosi’s vision for their company Catharsis is part of the process of change.

“What we are trying to do with our company is to get people to move back to traditional story principles… to move away from the Hollywood stereotypes of what people think is going to sell, what people think audiences want, and to take a look at the data and then deliver content that reaches more people” (Vicki Peterson).

Edelman Quote

Update July 2015

The interview with Erica Tremblay is now published here and with Vicki Peterson.


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