This week, spurred on by the debut of HBO’s Girls and the subsequent discussion of the show’s whiteness, has seen a significant discussion about the erasure of women of color on television, and the fact that the depictions of women of color, when they do happen, are frequently created and mediated by white writers. However we feel about Girls, and opinions vary, I think we can agree that the larger situation is untenable, and that our popular culture would be a richer, more interesting place if women of color had more opportunities to create, run production on, star in, and direct more television shows. I also think it’s critical to emphasize that just because women of color aren’t always visible as characters on television doesn’t mean they’re not already writing episodes of television and acting as showrunners. So in this post and another that run on Monday, I want to do two things: first, lay out the actual facts on the employment of women of color in television, which is an important starting point for a conversation about structural reform, and second, call attention to the great work of some of the women of color who are creating television already, but who don’t get the same kind of attention as Shonda Rhimes.
So let’s talk some numbers. First, the state of women’s employment in television overall is an embarrassment. According to the Women’s Media Center, during the 2010-2011 television season, women made up:
-18 percent of creators
-22 percent of executive producers
-37 percent of producers
-15 percent of writers
-11 percent of directors
-20 percent of editors
-4 percent of directors of photography.
Those numbers have not appreciably improved since 1997, and in fact, the years in which women make some gains in one of those professions frequently seem to be followed by declines in substantive seasons.
Moving in from those general numbers on women’s employment, the numbers are substantially worse when you look at women of color. A Directors Guild of America analysis of the 2010-2011 television season found that women of color directed just 1 percent of 2,600 television episodes that aired during that period (men of color directed 11 percent of those episodes, numbers comparable to those helmed by white women).
It should be noted that in television, unlike in film, writers have substantially more impact on the final product of a given episode than directors do. The Writers Guild of America, West puts out its Hollywood Writers Report less frequently than some of the other reports I’ve cited here or drawn other figures form, but the 2011 edition of the report, which looks at employment data from 2009 is revealing. It doesn’t break out data on minority women, but the numbers are still worth a look.
Between 2005 and 2009, the number of minority writers in television has fluctuated between nine and ten percent—as the report puts it, “it appears that minority writers are at best treading water when it comes to their share of television employment.” The median salary for white male television writers in 2009 was $108,000. For all minority writers, the median salary was $84,675. The pay gap between white male television writers and minority writers of both genders was $8,007 in 1999, $10,688 in 2007, and in 2009, rose to $23,325.
The report also notes an important factor that may interact with these other statistics: in 2005, 2007, and 2009, the number of writers younger than 31 stayed constant at 6 percent. And the number of writers aged 31 to 40 went from 37 percent to 36 percent during those years, so it’s not as if the number of younger writers stayed constant because they’re all aging into the next cohort and being replaced on a one to one basis. In other words, there isn’t yet an influx of a younger generation of writers that might bring more diversity than the current crop of established writers. Changing these numbers doesn’t appear to be something that’s going to change naturally. In fact, in some categories like compensation, the industry is losing ground.
These numbers are pathetic. This situation is pathetic. And if you’d like to let executives at the networks know that, here are the people at the major networks you should call out about it: