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Under-Representation in Scriptwriting (again)

Recently I participated (from my bed, distracted by itchy shingles) in an excellent Blackboard forum discussion on under-representation in scriptwriting, inspired by the news that the prestigious Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting are tracking gender among its applicants. (They have a wonderful ongoing commentary on their Facebook page.) Alas, so far, only a quarter of the applicants are women. According to the Fellowships' Facebook page, for years, the male-female split hovered near 70-30. Recently, however, it has dropped towards 75-25 and they are not sure why that has happened (so they must have been tracking gender for a while, but I think this may be the first year the figures have been public). You have three days left to enter!!!

from Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting Facebook page  (26 April 2013)

The Blackboard Forum: Under-Representation in Screenwriting

Shaula Evans led the Blackboard discussion warmly-and-welcomingly-and-brilliantly. In her introduction, she says:
'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.
This broader question resonated for me with a Writers Guild of America (West) statement that I love, which is one of the inspirations for the Development Project:
Industry diversity is not only about equal access to employment opportunities; it is also about opening space for the telling of stories that might not otherwise be told.
But most of the fascinating Blackboard discussion was about women screenwriters. The usual issues – confidence, the need for mentors and allies, the value of blind reading, whether there are as many women screenwriters as men (I think so!) etc were canvassed, from a variety of perspectives, with goodwill and respect. And many contributors provided links to very useful info. 

As I read, my main concern became that both the Academy Nicholl Fellowships and The Black List have stated that half their script readers are women, as though that is a good thing, something that inevitably helps women scriptwriters. (The Black List is a script hosting service, where writers pay to submit their scripts using their own names or pseudonyms for hosting and evaluations, and the highest-rated scripts are brought to the attention of participating industry professionals. Industry pros can also actively search for scripts on the site using criteria that include evaluation scores, genre, and tags.)

One contributor to the Blackboard debate thought that because half the Black List readers are women, that would reduce the risk of bias:
Gender bias is unlikely because half the [Black List] readers are female.
Another disagreed:
I do think though that even women readers can be capable (unwittingly) of gender bias (and I speak as someone who has been a reader), simply because we have all been taught what a well-made story is, and that notion is largely based in the supremacy of the traditional hero’s journey. It can be hard to be open to non-traditional ideas and methods, even when you want to, and it takes reading with that self-awareness. The Geena Davis Institute has done research that revealed that it’s only a small percentage of female characters who have journeys unrelated to the men in their lives, or even just conversations about something other than men. Even in works by women writers.

I do believe it’s changing for the better, and younger female writers are less likely to be oriented this way. For the rest of us, to fully explore our experiences as women through story, it may be that we have to re-train our brains to some extent, to give ourselves permission to focus fully on creating worthy female characters and storylines that have every bit the richness of stories about men. There are so many amazing stories to tell, stories that both men and women can take inspiration from and even, certainly just pure enjoyment watching women be women.

And the other contributor agreed.
...great point about women also being capable of gender bias; of course this is true. I kick myself sometimes when I find myself thinking in a way that was shaped by the gender biases I grew up with.
There are other myths around women's support for other women's storytelling beyond the one that women appreciate other women's work more than men do. There's the one that women support other women to tell their stories, more than men do. And that, given a choice, women will support other women's storytelling instead of supporting men's stories.

An element of Emily Sands' three-part research, recorded in her Princeton thesis Opening the Curtain on Playwright Gender: An Integrated Economic Analysis of Discrimination in American Theaterperhaps uniquely, explores one aspect of these myths, women readers' responses to playscripts when they are told that women wrote them.

Emily Sands speaks about her research

Emily Sands' research into playwright gender issues

The whole thesis is a great read and here's an extract from a New York Times article about it. It shows the complexity of the issues that face women playwrights, among which the 'woman reader' problem is just one; and establishes that having women readers assessing scripts doesn't necessarily help women writers, at least when those scripts are plays.
The first [part of the research] considered the playwrights themselves. Artistic directors of theater companies have maintained that no discrimination exists, rather that good scripts by women are in short supply. That claim elicited snorts and laughter from the audience when it was repeated Monday night, but Ms. Sands declared, “They’re right.”

In reviewing information on 20,000 playwrights in the Dramatists Guild and, an online database of playwrights, she found that there were twice as many male playwrights as female ones, and that the men tended to be more prolific, turning out more plays.

What’s more, Ms. Sands found, over all, the work of men and women is produced at the same rate. The artistic directors have a point: they do get many more scripts from men.

For the second study, Ms. Sands sent identical scripts to artistic directors and literary managers around the country. The only difference was that half named a man as the writer (for example, Michael Walker), while half named a woman (i.e., Mary Walker). It turned out that Mary’s scripts received significantly worse ratings in terms of quality, economic prospects and audience response than Michael’s. The biggest surprise? “These results are driven exclusively by the responses of female artistic directors and literary managers,” Ms. Sands said.

Amid the gasps from the audience, an incredulous voice called out, “Say that again?”

Ms. Sands put it another way: “Men rate men and women playwrights exactly the same.”

Ms. Sands was reluctant to explain the responses in terms of discrimination, suggesting instead that artistic directors who are women perhaps possess a greater awareness of the barriers female playwrights face.

For the third piece, Ms. Sands looked specifically at Broadway, where women write fewer than one in eight shows. She modeled her research on work done in the 1960s and ’70s to determine whether discrimination existed in baseball. Those studies concluded that black players had to deliver higher performing statistics — for example, better batting averages — than white players simply to make it to the major leagues.

Ms. Sands examined the 329 new plays and musicals produced on Broadway in the past 10 years to determine whether the bar was set higher. Did scripts by women have to be better than those by men?

Of course, there are many ways to define “better,” but on Broadway, with the exception of three nonprofit theaters, everyone can agree that one overriding goal is to make a profit. So did shows written by women during that period make more money than shows written by men?

The answer is yes. Plays and musicals by women sold 16 percent more tickets a week and were 18 percent more profitable over all. In the end, women had to deliver the equivalent of higher batting averages, Ms. Sands said.

Yet even though shows written by women earned more money, producers did not keep them running any longer than less profitable shows that were written by men. To Ms. Sands, the length of the run was clear evidence that producers discriminate against women.
A year before Emily Sands published her results, Julia Jordan presented figures from three states in the U.S. that show that women write for theatre at around the 20% level that exists in scriptwriting for feature film production in many parts of the world. So perhaps the first part of the research can be applied to screenwriting and explains why fewer women have entered scripts for the Nicholls Fellowships in Screenwriting. But, are the database figures a reliable measure? For example, I know that half the students who take an MA in Scriptwriting at Victoria University's International Institute of Modern Letters are women and that women win the annual class prize more often than men. Last year in New Zealand's Script Writer Awards women won Best Feature Film Script, the Best New Writer Award and the Unproduced Feature Script Award, where women also wrote seven of the ten final scripts. This evidence of a strong cohort of women scriptwriters exists alongside New Zealand's dismal track record for produced feature scripts by women and suggests that women scriptwriters produce excellent scripts here (and in other parts of the world) in greater numbers than appears from our engagement with competitions and databases. What happens to all those scripts? Do we enter competitions only if we are confident that our work excels?

Maybe men appear to be more prolific when they engage with databases and competitions only because they feel more welcome and at home there than women do. Maybe it's necessary for organisations and databases to strategise to attract women scriptwriters and people from other under-represented groups, some of whom will also be women. Because more diversity of all kinds will make for a richer culture. But decision-makers have to believe that and to work for it, or it won't happen. The Black List has just introduced a group of 'diversity tags' for scriptwriters to use when submitting scripts to its service, including a #BechdelTest tag, thanks to suggestions from @Silverwingscrpt and @BiatchPack on Twitter and from @margibk in the Blackboard discussion, who wrote:
Why not a set of tags that describe the protagonist? Female, male, straight, gay, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, and so on. Such tags would help any search designed to find a screenplay featuring underrepresented groups. And the writers can choose whether they wish to tag their screenplays that way or not.
And that seems like a good place to start.

As for the second part of Emily Sands' research, it didn't surprise me that exclusively women artistic directors and literary managers gave worse ratings to 'Mary’s' scripts than to Michael's, in terms of quality, economic prospects and audience response. While Emily Sands suggested that artistic directors who are women perhaps possess a greater awareness of the barriers female playwrights face and this may explain their ratings, I suspect that the reasons are more complex and include the effects of learned gender biases like those that the contributors to the Blackboard discussion referred to and which I've observed wherever women (including me) assess other women's work. We're all conditioned to enjoy and support men's work more than women's. Those 'golden boys' are seductive!

The 'higher batting averages' element makes sense, too and it's great to have this confirmation of it. At the moment the reality is that women's stories will be resourced only if they're exceptional.

New Zealand and gender bias in theatre

I know little about gender bias in New Zealand theatre. But four years ago Branwen Millar wrote an article in Playmarket magazine (not available online) where she started
As an emerging playwright, I'm excited by the huge talent and diversity of our writers. As a woman, I'm disheartened.
She acknowledged that she had "a massive amount of support for my writing" but is "at a loss when I look at the landscape I'm entering", provided some grim statistics about women playwrights' representation in productions and awards and asked:
Where are the female voices in our theatres? Is it that men are better writers? Do men write faster and therefore have more plays? Receive more support? Are women one-hit wonders? Why do they stop writing?
Nothing's changed since. Earlier this year, in a New Zealand Herald opinion piece entitled Men still pull strings in Auckland theatre, Janet McAllister commented on the lack of female playwrights and directors in Auckland theatres. This is how she started:
The performance arts have a female-friendly image - the ladies are thought to like all that theatrical stuff. But two years ago, I noted the proportion of female directors, playwrights and public-forum speakers participating at various Auckland venues and found that the more flagshippy and stalwarty an establishment was, the fewer of these key women it featured.

The number of women onstage merely masked the general chauvinistic Svengali nature of the industry, with males pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Two years on, has anything changed? Not much, although there are a few hopeful signs, a few worries - and one absolute shocker.
You can read the original article here. Then came a response from distinguished playwright and screenwriter Fiona Samuel, printed several days later in the Letters to the Editor section.
Re Janet McAllister's Opinion column in Saturday's Herald Weekend section, pithily titled 'Men still pull strings in Auckland theatre', I thank the Herald for this timely analysis.

In Janet's final paragraph, she hopes that the presence of two plays-in-development by female playwrights in the Auckland Theatre Company's Next Stage showcase for 2012 indicates change to come. Don't hold your breath, Janet. 
To my knowledge, ATC has never taken a play by a female playwright from this development initiative on to presentation on the main bill stage. One male/female writing team has made the leap, but that's it - one co-writing credit in seven years. During that time, nine female playwrights had work in Next Stage; none progressed to production as sole author of a main-bill drama under the aegis of the ATC. 

The men fared differently. In those same years, plays by Stephen Sinclair, Michael Galvin, Dave Armstrong, Victor Rodger, Geoff Chapple, Arthur Meek and Eli Kent have progressed from development workshop to full theatrical presentation. 
Is this just a surprising coincidence? After seven years, it looks more like a pattern.
So - will things be different in 2013 and beyond? I'd like to think so, but this record doesn't fill me with optimism. 
Fiona Samuel 
(NZ Arts Laureate & playwright)
In New Zealand we're fortunate to have Playmarket, a not-for-profit organisation concerned with
...the development, support and representation of New Zealand playwrights. We are a key advocate for the continued growth of New Zealand theatre on our stages and coordinate a range of resources, services and opportunities for playwrights.
Today, I went to the Playmarket website and counted the images from produced plays on two of their pages.  There were twenty-five writers represented, some several times. Five of them, 20%, are women.   There are 179 playwrights listed in Playmarket's database and 69, or 38.5%, are women. Why are images of their productions not reproduced in the same proportion? Playmarket has two diversity-oriented programmes, Asian Ink for Asian playwrights and Brown Ink for Maori and Pasifika playwrights, some of whom will of course be women, but no discrete women's programme. Does Playmarket need to up its game? It seems that change is needed in the New Zealand theatre world, as it is in film.


Now for the good news, a wee celebration. Playmarket's Adam NZ Play Award is an annual group of awards, supported by arts philanthropists Denis and Verna Adam. It's the only New Zealand award for new writing and "encourages writers to banish all self censoring, all worries about what theatres want, what is affordable and what they think audiences want to see". Only unproduced plays are eligible and the plays are read blind. The top award is for the Best New Zealand Play (last won by a woman in 2009, by Pip Hall with The 53rd Victim) and further awards for Best Play By a Maori Playwright, Best Play By a Pasifika Playwright and Best Play By a Woman Playwright.

Hannah McKie
Hannah McKie, a Creative Writing PhD student at the International Institute of Modern Letters, and part of the all-women Page Left Collective, is this year's winner of the Best Play By A Woman Playwright with Mary Scott: Queen of the Backblocks. This means that her play is also the New Zealand entry in the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, "given annually to recognize women who have written works of outstanding quality for the English-speaking theatre."

Renae Maihi
Renae Maihi, an actor/writer/director, won Best Play By A Maori Playwright for Patua, a play about child abuse, funded by Creative New Zealand. Renae's first play was Nga Manurere.

She also co-wrote Katie Wolfe's short film Redemption and is writer/director of a New Zealand Film Commission funded short – Purerehua/Butterfly, currently in post-production. Many congratulations to Hannah and Renae.

It's taken me a few days to write this and in the meantime, ever hopeful, I've been tweeting about the Nicholl gender split, hoping that might encourage more women to enter. And kind tweeps have been retweeting. But it's made no difference. There's so much more work to be done. Here's the info for today, off the Nicholl Facebook site (the main site seems to be down).

from Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting Facebook page  (29 April 2013)


  1. Thank you for your kind words and all your support for our discussion at The Black Board.

    I'm glad to see you have so much to celebrate in New Zealand!

    I understand that what we really need is change at the level of organizations, institutions and culture--but I take hope from the fact that there's great room for improvement through individual initiative.

    To be clear, by "individual initiative" I don't mean pulling oneself up by the bootstraps or other destructive myths; in fact, I mean quite the opposite: individuals taking action to help *others*.

    Where do I come into this personally?
    - Writing and participating in the screenwriting community as a visible woman.
    - Vertically and peer/horizontally mentoring and supporting other writers, especially underrepresented writers (and not just women).
    - Adding my voice to conversations about process-level changes like data collection and blind submissions that work around implicit bias.
    - Supporting and appreciating allies. (Yes, that means you. Obviously.)

    What else can we do? What else can I do? I'm always open to suggestions.

  2. Thank you for this beautiful, thoughtful comment, Shaula. I love your list of things we can do personally. Awesome. I haven't seen such a comprehensive one before. And I like the themes I identify. Speak with and speak out. (This includes the screen*writing* component, through full engagement with storytelling opportunities like competitions). Be fearless. (I've observed that fear prevents some people from some of the actions on your list). Identify and treasure allies, as a mentor, mentee, advocate and one advocated for, as a collaborator. And I think writers are well placed to undertake all these things with imagination and patience, the very same imagination and patience that we take with us to the keyboard when we tell our stories. I'm delighted to meet you as a new ally. And wonder what others think of your list. What else can we do? What else can I do?

  3. "Be Fearless" should go on my writing wall! That's a huge one, isn't it--with writing, with generosity, with building relationships, with investing in others. And taking advantage of our powerful and privileged position as storytellers: it is so easy to overlook the power and potential of narrative.

    It's a real pleasure to meet you, too. :)

  4. I am doing research for a "Women in Screenwriting" course and would like your opinion on a comprehensive textbook

    1. O gosh. Would you like to email me? Happy to have a chat--


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