Candidates in the ongoing WGA West election are vowing to do more to increase diversity in Hollywood’s writers rooms.
In his re-election bid, WGA West secretary-treasurer Aaron Mendelsohn is calling on Hollywood to adopt the NFL’s so-called “Rooney Rule,” which requires teams to interview minority candidates for all head coaching and senior football operation jobs.
“It should be mandatory that at least one female writer and one writer of color be interviewed for open writing assignments,” he said in his candidate’s statement. “In sports it’s called the ‘Rooney Rule.’ In screenwriting it’s called ‘smart hiring.’”
Persuading the companies to adopt such a policy has been a tough slog, however. The Directors Guild tried to get the studios to adopt a version of the Rooney Rule during its previous two rounds of contract talks, but its proposals categorically were rejected both times. And the WGA made no major gains for women and minority writers in its contract talks earlier this year.
Early in her career, board candidate Nicole Yorkin, who’s been a member of the guild for 28 years, had an encounter with a showrunner that typified the plight of female writers in those days. She and her female writing partner were being interviewed for staff writing jobs and “thought the meeting was going pretty well,” she said in her candidate’s statement. “Until, that is, the showrunner told us he already had one woman on staff and was worried that by hiring us, ‘there might be too many female voices in the room.’ I’d like to be able to say everything has changed since then. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.”
Looking back at the guild’s hiring data, she found that in 1989, 25% of the writers on television series were women. “And last year? It was 29%. As women, we’d raised our status four points in 28 years. The statistics for minority writers on shows are even more dismal, holding flat at just 13% of the jobs on staffs. The numbers for women and minority screenwriting jobs are particularly appalling. In 2014, women writers secured 16.9 % of film jobs, with minority writers at just 7%.”
Today she wrote: “There are still plenty of all-male writing staffs and feature film assignments that go only to men. On every show we’ve run, my partner and I have always made sure we hired at least as many women as men, and it wasn’t particularly difficult. I’d like to try to find more ways for the guild to encourage showrunners, studios, and networks to think about hiring both women and writers of color as easily as they might think about hiring people who look like them. Yes, we are making strides in terms of diverse showrunners, but there’s plenty of work to be done.”
Michelle Mulroney, who’s one of 11 candidates vying for eight seats on the guild’s board of directors, wrote in her statement that she too has “sat in room after room where I see a woeful lack of diversity and gender parity. The diversity conversation has to be ongoing, and I would participate vigorously in any initiatives and discussions.”
For the WGA, the issue of diversity in television is complicated by the fact that many of its members are the showrunners and executive producers who do the hiring of writers.
David A. Goodman, the WGA West’s current vice president who’s running unopposed for president of the union, said in his candidate’s statement: “As always, diversity is an issue of deep concern. Since some of our members are involved in hiring others, there is more we can do to take a more forceful approach to education of these members, as well as continuing and supporting the great efforts of the guild committees who work on this issue.”
Francesca Butler, the only African-American board candidate this year, referred voters to her website, where she wrote: “So, I’m a black woman. A black woman who has spent the bulk of my life being the only black person in the room – often the only minority at all. There’s an idea that diverse writers (including LGBT, disabled, and women writers, not just writers of color) are like the Highlander: there can be only one. Well, I’ve been lucky enough to occasionally work with writing staffs that are nearly half women, nearly half people of color, or both and miraculously, none of us tried to behead one another. We need to do away with the idea that diversity is hiring one woman or non-white writer and calling it a day. We also need to do away with the idea that diversity in writing rooms is some top-down edict enforced for political correctness rather than what it really is: a way of finding voices with varied experiences and making storytelling better.”
Carleton Eastlake, who’s running against Mendelsohn for secretary-treasurer, said in his statement that the guild needs to take a more “granular” approach to the issue of diversity. “Just as granular real-world data about writers’ compensation in TV unlocked the gains made in the 2017 negotiations,” he wrote, “the guild should develop more granular data about compensation, working conditions, and career lifecycles for all its members broken out by age, gender, ethnicity, education, prior history, and other useful factors. That information would allow for diversity programs to be better designed and motivated and would also allow all members to better deal with career and financial planning. Isolation weakens us, but forewarned is forearmed: precise, accurate information about working conditions for every type of writer in every field we represent will strengthen us both as individuals and as members of a union taking joint action.
Board candidate Patti Carr wrote in her candidate’s statement that diversity “is an issue Hollywood has paid lip service to, but made little real progress on.” This, she said in her statement, is due in part “to a misunderstanding of what the goal of ‘diversity’ is. From a labor standpoint, diversity is about overriding the systemic prejudices that deny professional opportunities based on gender, race, age and physical ability. It is not enough to make sure there is one woman and one person of color in the photo of every writing staff, or even to promote telling new stories from underrepresented points of view. As a labor issue, the success of a diversity program should be measurable by employment data – are writers who are non-white, non-male, over 50 or otherwise ‘diverse’ given equal pay and equal employment? We are not, and as long as progress is left to programs based on good intentions or changing hearts and minds, we won’t be. To be clear, I support and applaud every effort to achieve this difficult goal, even the ‘feel good’ ones. But slow progress translates to no progress over the course of individual careers. Our union is made up of compassionate, educated people, and yet we have not been bold leaders in this arena. New York just passed a tax credit aimed specifically at diversity hiring in the entertainment industry, and many other states are passing or considering legislation that prohibit employers from asking for information on past salary – a practice that has been proven to perpetuate income inequality. I believe the WGA West should be a leader on this issue; we should come up with a comprehensive plan, and we should target measurable gains in income and representation.”
Board candidate Angelina Burnett wrote that mentoring is the best answer to the problem and criticized many of the companies’ diversity programs as being little more than a “check-box solution.”
“The diversity writer program is a meager and unserious nod toward addressing the inequity in television,” she said in her statement. “It is structured to ensure a face of color in the room, nothing more. The studios put together a pot of money that covers the cost of a diversity hire at staff writer level. As far as the showrunner is concerned, she’s got a free writer. But what’s her incentive to bring that staff writer back as story editor if she doesn’t hit it out of the park? After all, once she bumps up, the writer’s salary is coming out of the show’s budget. Better to let her go and hire a new diversity writer, who’s free. I know a writer who spent five seasons as a staff writer. FIVE. Which means for five seasons, she didn’t get paid for her scripts. That is… excuse me… f*cking insane. The diversity writer program isn’t even in the vicinity of good enough. And while we can and should advocate for the studios to restructure the pot of money so that there are financial incentives at multiple levels, this doesn’t address a deep cultural problem. We will only develop a membership that reflects the diversity of this country through mentorship. And people tend to mentor people who look like them. Yes, there are dozens of mentorship programs focused on diversity. They should continue. There should be more. But I am here because a family member cracked a door for me, then wonderful bosses hired and mentored me. Mentorship cannot just be a program. It must be an integral part of the way we do business, who we hire and recommend, not just in our rooms, but as assistants, interns, and PAs.”
She added: “The work that has been done in the last few years around this challenge has been meaningful, even though it feels as though little progress has been made. I sat in a workshop with an upper level writer who had an epiphany about his hiring practices around race. I watched his perspective shift. It was beautiful and heartening, but it required a hard conversation. We can and should do more, but this is a long haul organizing challenge the goal of which is to change the culture of our business. It happens one conversation at a time. It’s not easy, it’s not fast, and it needs all the champions in leadership it can get.”
Luvh Rakhe, who’s seeking re-election to the board, noted in his statement that he’s been “a diversity staff writer five times,” and that the “lack of diversity continues to be a vexing problem.” Even so, he wrote that he is “heartened to see us take a more multi-pronged approach – programs don’t need to solve everything to be worthwhile. The diversity committees themselves have emerged as leaders, and the board should help them expand their programs.”
Board candidate Spiro Skentzos also sees mentoring as a key component of the solution. “Mid-level, diverse writers need exposure and opportunities to prove themselves,” he wrote. “Despite the guild’s success in this area with the Writers Access Program, diverse, mid-level writers often suffer from a lack of employment once their staff writer season or diversity program ends. For a large group of diverse writers, this is a reality. We need more one-on-one mentoring of members who bring fresh perspectives whether it’s through their age, gender, ethnic or racial background, disability, sexual identity or previous life experience. Since writers are the bosses in TV, we need to get this message out to all writers: every voice is unique and writers aren’t interchangeable. A diverse viewership demands diverse writing rooms to generate diverse product. The WGA works hard to keep our wages commensurate with what we do. And the ability for them to do that comes from our solidarity. And we should keep pointing that solidarity inward in terms of mentoring and education – to bring everyone to the table to add their voices to the choir.”
Meredith Stiehm, seeking re-election to the board, wrote that she has been “a consistent voice for women writers in the board meetings, and on my other committees. I think it helps to keep offering up my POV, so we and other underrepresented writers are remembered, considered, valued. Women are still a minority on the board, so I hope there are even more of us in the chorus next year. If I am re-elected, I promise to keep speaking up, trying to affect change in our direction – as Abigail Adams wrote, to Remember the Ladies.”
Marjorie David, running unopposed for vice president, wrote that her statement about diversity from her 2016 board race “still applies.” Back then she wrote: “The past few years have seen a redoubled effort on the part of our guild to promote increased diversity in the industry. There are frustrating moments when we are brought up short by the fact that we aren’t employers ourselves. So we on the board constantly look for ways to put pressure on people who do the hiring. Sticks, however, are not always as usefully wielded as carrots, and the member committees under the CAP (Committee Advisory Panel) umbrella have been doing a bang-up job of expanding opportunities for members to meet showrunners, executives, managers and agents. As a board member, it has been my responsibility this year to co-chair the oversight committee that approves and finances the programs of the black, Latino, LGBT, disabled and Asian WGA writers’ committees, as well as the women’s committee, the career longevity committee, events committee and the education committee. It’s a great way to get to know writers, to understand their needs and frustrations and to help them learn about the business while they build both social and employment networks. Members design, organize and publicize their own events — their energy is a wonder to behold. Too many writers from diverse groups fall by the wayside in our business. CAP activities are a positive step toward keeping our diverse members in the work force. And, I can’t resist saying, they’re fun. In addition, it has been my pleasure to meet with new members at guild orientation sessions. My heart sings when I look at the sea of faces – we’re starting to really look like what America looks like.”
Andrea Berloff, seeking re-election to the board, wrote that she’s “enjoyed being a voice in the board room for diversity. There is clearly more to be done on this front, but it is extremely rewarding to have a seat at the table and to be part of the effort of pushing the conversation forward.”
Board candidate John August made only a passing reference to diversity in his statement, proposing “a regular sweep through the membership to find out what they’re encountering. We don’t need charts; we need anecdotes from which we can glean patterns. So gather groups and get them talking. Assemble ten TV story editors, then ten first-time feature writers, then ten recent graduates of studios’ diversity initiatives. How much money are they actually bringing in? How much time are they spending chasing jobs that vanish? How likely are they to quit the business?”
Incumbent board member Zac Penn did not pen a candidate’s statement.
The deadline for voting in the WGA elections is September 18.