Monday, August 26, 2013

Gender Disparity in American and British Television Writing Staffs (Or: Somebody, Please, Please, Take Away My Excel Access)

My quest to spite Steven Moffat may have gotten out of hand. (Quoth Community: “This is how supervillains are created.”)

If you’re breathing and use the internet, you’ve probably heard the screaming and debate over whether current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat needs to hire more female writers. And by “more,” I mean “some”: In his three-year, 42-episode tenure, Moffat has not employed a single female writer.

Well, you know me. I love getting outraged at Steven Moffat. I want so badly to be able to say, “Fuck you, Steven Moffat. This is fucking ridiculous.” But, sadly, I can’t get outraged without data. Before I could swear delightedly at Moffat, I needed to know whether Moffat is really doing such a bad job, compared to everyone else. What if, as one of the above links suggests, gender inequality on writing staffs is a systemic problem in British sci-fi/fantasy? “Fuck you, British sci-fi/fantasy, this is fucking ridiculous,” is just way less fun to yell.

So I started researching the writing staffs of the big sci-fi/fantasy shows: Star Trek. Game of Thrones. Farscape. (It’s big to me, damn it!) And then I started researching the staffs of some other shows of interest: Mad Men. Community. The Walking Dead.

And then I thought, Holy fucking hell, selection bias, much?

There was only one solution: A comprehensive study of gender equality in British and American television writing.

The Study

I looked at every scripted show that aired six or more episodes in Britain in the last three years on any of the following channels: BBC One, BBC Two, BBC Three, BBC Four, ITV, and ITV2.

I looked at every scripted show that aired six or more episodes in America in the last three years on any broadcast network (ABC, CBS, the CW, Fox, or NBC).

In order to avoid poring over thousands of soap opera episodes, I limited my sample to shows that generally aired once a week.

For each show, I recorded the total number of episodes written; the total number of writers credited; the number of episodes credited to at least one female writer; the number of female writers credited; and the number of the first episode with a female writing credit. Excel then kindly calculated for me the ratio of female-credited episodes to total episodes, as well as the ratio of female writers to total writers. Excel is good like that.

My data was gathered from Wikipedia and occasionally from IMDB, and is only as accurate as my sources. I used names as an indicator of gender, which is not a 100% accurate system; when in doubt, I googled the writer to check. (There were a very few cases in which Google did not provide. In those cases, I either played the percentages, if it was a name that generally goes with one gender or the other, or I defaulted to male, if it was not. There were not, I think, enough of these cases to make a very big impact on the data, and there is no show in which an uncertain name was the only female credit.) If a name looked obviously male or obviously female, I didn’t check, so to any female television writers out there named George: I’m sorry, but I counted you as a male writer.

Define your terms, people. Always define your terms. Otherwise we’re all just wandering around in a haze of random gibberish.

Popularly, an auteur project is one that is controlled entirely by one writer or small group of writers. I specifically defined an auteur television show as a show that:

                Credited 3 or fewer writers


                Had the same writing credit for every episode.

The episodes ratio, for the purpose of this post, is the number of episodes a show has with at least one female writing credit divided by the total number of episodes:

The writers ratio, for the purposes of this post, is the number of female writers a show employed divided by the total number of writers:

Those interested in looking at the full data (complete with relevant and irrelevant notes) can do so here:



The Breakdown

Mean Episodes Ratio
Mean Writers Ratio
British non-auteur shows
American shows
British sci-fi/fantasy
American sci-fi/fantasy

In Britain, there were 34 total non-auteur television shows.

In America, there were 154 total television shows.

In Britain, for non-auteur projects, the episodes ratio was .205. (The “average” show credited a female writer on 20.5% of its episodes.)

In America, the episodes ratio was .378. (The “average” show credited a female writer on 37.8% of its episodes.)

In Britain, for non-auteur projects, the mean writers ratio was .243. (24.3% of the writers employed over all time by the “average” show were women.)

In America, the mean writers ratio was .334. (33.4% of the writers employed over all time by the “average” show were women.)

In Britain, there were 8 non-auteur sci-fi/fantasy television shows.

In America, there were 25 sci-fi/fantasy television shows.

In British non-auteur sci-fi/fantasy, the mean ratio episodes ratio was .134. (The “average” show credited a female writer on 13.4% of its episodes.)

In American sci-fi/fantasy, the mean episodes ratio was .404. (The “average” show credited a female writer on 40.4% of its episodes.)

In British non-auteur sci-fi/fantasy, the mean writers ratio was .187. (18.7% of the writers employed over all time by the “average” show were women.)

In American sci-fi/fantasy, the mean writers ratio was .341. (34.1% of the writers employed over all time by the “average” show were women.)

Britain has a lot of auteur shows (40 out of the 74 shows I looked at), so I looked at those shows separately. Here are the relevant statistics:

In Britain, 40 out of 74 (~54.1%) shows counted were auteur projects.

In America, 0 out of 154 (0%) shows counted were auteur projects.

In Britain, 13 out of 40 (32.5%) auteur projects credited a female writer.

So, Who Won?

Amurka won by a fucking landslide. I was good to Britain. I only considered shows that had actual writing staffs (since most of Britain’s auteur shows are run by men). But sadly, they just couldn’t keep up with good ol’ US of A.

How badly did they lose? Well, take a look at these sexy, sexy histograms:

What’s that you’re saying? You don’t really know much about how histograms work, because you’re a normal person who can get angry at a TV writer without performing a comprehensive analysis of gender disparity in the workplace?

Oh. Okay. Well, a histogram measures frequencies. Consider the British Episodes Ratio histogram. Each of the bars represents the number of television shows whose ratios fell within that particular range. The numbers below the bars represent the upper limit of each bar’s range. So, since the left-most bar (the one over the 0.1) hits 16, that means that there were 16 shows in which at most 10% of the episodes were credited to a female writer. (The other bars are for the shows with ratios between 0.1 and 0.2, 0.2 and 0.3, 0.3 and 0.4, and so on.)

If there were a totally even number of male and female writers in the potential workforce, and writers were hired totally at random (or at least, if they were hired with actual gender-blindness, since I don’t actually believe that men are inherently better writers than women), we would expect each of the above histograms to conform to a normal curve, also known as a bell curve.

Data that conforms to a normal curve looks like this:

Basically, it looks like a bell—hence the name. In our hypothetical world where writers are employed without regard to their gender, we would expect the tippy-top of our bell to be at or around 0.5, meaning that the most common episodes ratio is 0.5.

If a lot more male writers are employed than female writers, we’ll get a lopsided bell, with the tip-top on the left. In the opposite case, well get a bell with the tip-top on the right.

Okay. Now go look at the histograms again. Which ones look more like our hypothetical gender-blind world?


If you’re still not convinced, here’s a less rigorous but more evocative statistic for you. Of the 34 non-auteur British television shows I looked at, 7 employed no female writers at all. That’s about 20.6%.

Of the 154 American television shows I looked at, only one—Allen Gregory, for those interested—employed no female writers. That’s about 0.6%.

(“But Madelyn!” you say. “American TV shows have so many more episodes in which to hire female writers!” Yes, but of the 154 American shows I looked at, only 11 took more than 6 episodes to get to their first female writing credit. In Britain, 13 shows took more than 6 episodes to get to their first female credit—and that’s not counting the 5 shows that had more than 6 episodes but no female writing credits at all.)

Does That Mean British People Evil Misogynists?

I dunno, maybe. But probably not. Correlation is not, as they say, causation, and there are a lot of potential reasons that the world of British television isn’t as X-chromosome-rich as America. Maybe there are some subtle sociological factors that discourage British women from being writers. Maybe there’s a law in Britain that says you have to bench press 200 lbs. before you can write for TV. Maybe (and this one seems very plausible, to me) British TV writers staff their shows with writers they know, and male writers tend to know male writers—and, since we’re not so far out from the 70s, established writers tend to be male.

What I doubt is that British (or American, for that matter) executives and showrunners are getting scripts from women, thinking, “Ew! Girls can’t write! They have cooties!” and rejecting them.

Didn’t You Say Something Earlier About Sci-Fi? Maybe it’s Sci-Fi’s Fault!

Well, in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, it’s certainly not. Check the stats. (They’re about three miles behind us, in the “Breakdown” section.) American sci-fi/fantasy actually has higher ratios of female writers and writing credits than does the general American population.

In Britain, sci-fi/fantasy does do a little worse than the average, but not a lot worse. Removing sci-fi/fantasy shows from the population only brings the mean episodes ratio up to .229, and the mean writers ratio to .261. Both are still considerably below their American counterparts.

In other words: It’s not British sci-fi that’s doing a bad job hiring women. It’s just Britain.

(Not, by the way, that America’s doing all that great a job. It’s just doing better.)

Is There Any Random Miscellany You’d Like to Share? We Know You Love Random Miscellany.

I so totally do. Two shows (Lonestar and The Playboy Club) were cut from the American list because, although six episodes were produced, fewer than six had locatable writing credits. Of the five available episodes, Lonestar had one episode credited to a female writer; The Playboy Club had three.

The hardest time I had figuring out a writer’s gender was for Dana Greenblatt. Eventually, I discovered that she had once been a contestant on Jeopardy, and after twenty minutes’ googling, I found a fansite with pictures of basically every Jeopardy winner. Never has twenty minutes been better spent.

While compiling the British data, I held a contest for Most British Name. The winner was Harry Wootliff, writer of one episode of Waterloo Road.

There’s also an American procedural writer named Speed Weed. You’re welcome.

Wait. Wasn’t This Supposed to Be About Steven Moffat?

Fuck, you’re right. Well, here’s the thing. Moffat has produced 42 episodes of Doctor Who. In the process, he employed 12 writers. None of them were women. Of the 7 British TV shows that have never employed a female writer, only one—Not Going Out—even has 42 episodes. Of the rest, only one—Agatha Christie’s Poirot—went longer than 42 episodes before it credited its first woman. (That’s not counting classic Doctor Who, which technically went 107 episodes before crediting a woman, though I think it was on something like its 23rd serial.) Moffat’s way the hell on the left of the histograms; he’s bringing down the average; he’s part of the problem, not the solution.

But…he really is only part of the problem. Maybe this will help explain what I mean: Moffat employed 12 male writers. His predecessor, Russell T. Davies, employed 16 writers, all but one of whom were male. Of Moffat’s 12 writers, 8 were already writing for the show under Davies. Moffat only hired four writers, and two of those, Neil Cross and Neil Gaiman, are very high-profile; he stuck with the people he knew. And there are plenty of shows on the list that hired four male writers before they got to a woman.

(By the way, it took Davies 32 episodes to give out a female writing credit.)

Basically, Moffat is an extreme example of a systemic problem. Should he employ more female writers? Yes. Absolutely fucking yes. Yes, yes, a million times yes. For one thing, there’s a chance that it will make Doctor Who less casually sexist.

But do I think he (and by extension, the rest of British and American television) should make an effort to go out and hire more women, just to even out the score?

I don’t know. I really don’t know. There’s an argument to be made—and it’s not an obviously false one—that having a few women around will make television better just because it brings a new perspective. It widens the range of stories we think to tell. (Much as hiring ethnic, religious, and sexual minority writers would.)

But my guess is that the majority of the writers who come across Moffat’s radar, and the radar of many others, really are male.

I guess what I’m most comfortable saying is this: I think the best writer for the job should be hired, every time. But I don’t think that the best writer is always the guy you know. I think television producers would benefit from broadening their searches. Not necessarily hiring the people they worked with on their last show. And I think a byproduct of that, in many cases, would be an increase in the diversity of writing staffs.

But wow, that’s hard to yell about. So as much as I’d like to end this ridiculously long post by saying, “Fuck you Steven Moffat, this is fucking ridiculous,” I can’t. Instead, I leave you with this:

Fuck you, systemic problems affecting the gender disparity of writing staffs on British and to a lesser extent American television! This is fucking ridiculous!


  1. This is brilliant. Thank you.

    (I came here because someone linked it in the "moffat hate" tag on Tumblr, by the way.)

    1. Yeah, the views on this post tripled overnight, so I figured something tumblr-related must have happened. Thank you very much!

  2. This is pretty amazing, to be honest.
    I have never seen such a detailed breakdown, and it sure was an interesting read (especially There’s also an American procedural writer named Speed Weed. You’re welcome.).
    But I think I need to say thank you, because you took the time to complete this study when you just as well could have yelled about Moffat, and the fact that it's apparent that you dislike him and still grudgingly admit that it's not entirely his fault makes your study all the more powerful--and credible.

    So, thank you, it was very interesting to read!

  3. Hello! This was a really fascinating read and definitely indicates problems with the system. Thanks for taking the time to put this all together, and to explain your data and findings so clearly.

    I just had one question, and forgive me if you already addressed it and I've just overlooked this, but would the number of episodes have anything to do with these figures? British shows do tend to have shorter seasons, with 13 being the absolute maximum a show has, while US network shows put out at least that, and often the full 22. Is this one potential factor in writer selection, I wonder? When only making 6, I imagine it's easier to fall back on the same established male writers without having to hunt for additional writers to meet deadlines.

    1. First of all, thanks for reading. Second of all, sorry about the wall of text you're about to see.

      To be honest, I don't really have enough information for a definitive answer on that. But it is something that I considered when I was compiling data, so I made a scatter plot for the British data, comparing total number of episodes to writer ratios. My theory was basically yours: Maybe shows with more episodes *had* to employ more female writers. If that were the case, you'd expect the scatter plot to roughly approximate a line with an upward slant.

      Instead, what I got was a whole bunch of dots clustered in a more-or-less vertical line at the low end of the graph. In other words: higher episode counts aren't correlated with higher percentages of female writers.

      It's not definitive, but it suggests that episode count isn't responsible for the difference between American and British hiring practices.

  4. I agree wholeheartedly with your post here, but I have something to say: I get why Moffat or anyone else would hire people they know, if they know how good they are. Because they already saw them at work, and they did good, and they play it safe, by bringing in someone who's more famous and whom they know.
    I hope I made myself clear. I am not justifying anyone, I'm just saying that I would probably do the same, if I were a showrunner myself: in the end, better not leave the old path for the new path, an Italian saying teaches us. (That's "better the Devil you know..." for you!)

    1. Oh, I totally understand why showrunners hire the people they know. They do it in America, too, just to a lesser extent. People you know are reliable, you know what you're going to get from them, they're less of a risk, and honestly, it just feels good to work with people you know.

      I just think that there are unpleasant byproducts of that totally understandable urge. One of them is (probably) that not many women get hired. Another is, I think, that we hear a lot of the same perspectives in our stories, and not as many new ones.

      Anyway, thank you for reading!

    2. Yes, that's exactly what I meant! It's easier to just rely on someone you already know, and play it safe.
      But of course, the problem is that maybe not many female writers get hired in the first place... and it is a waste because of the point of view thing you say, but also because it basically ensures that television stays sexist with its sexist jokes and clichés (not that most women aren't sexist themselves, ay, but one can hope in gender equality, right?)

  5. Hi, I'm the person who initially posted the link in the 'moffat hate' tag. I initially found this post via twitter and admired the statistical analysis and the commitment to scientific method enough to post it to tumblr.
    So I thought you should know that about 1 in 4 people who've reblogged the link like the maths and statistical analysis. (Or at least tag it as such.)

    Also, something which couldn't really be proved by the data here, but I do wonder if the BBC's hiring practise of only considering writers who submit original scripts impacts on the ratios of UK scriptwriters. (Especially since the BBC sometimes seems to be a starting point for some screenwriters in the UK, as I often read about writers jumping ship to ITV or turning freelance once they've gotten a few episodes/a series to their name. I rarely read about the opposite happening.)

    1. Hello, there! I guess I have you to thank for my exploding view counts. :)

      I'm pretty heartened by the fact that people seem to be responding to the statistics. I'm a big fan of data (which should be obvious), and I wish that it were included more in the discussion of... well, of a lot of things, feminism among them.

      I did not know that about the BBC! I can't think of a mechanism by which that practice might affect hiring ratios, but that doesn't mean there isn't one. (Although it occurs to me that I should have done a breakdown of ratios by network. I guess I still could.)

  6. As a Brit, I'm curious about your choice of channels. I think if you were to ask a Brit about the 'top' channels you'd get the old terrestrial selection reeled off first - BBC1, BBC2, ITV and Channel 4 (and possibly Channel 5, though it mostly shows US shows these days). BBC3 and 4 do original programming, but ITV2 is mostly repeats of shows from the 80s and 90s and spin offs of reality TV. Was more data available for ITV2 than Channel 4?

    1. Yeah, British and American television are set up so differently that channel choice became an issue. There was scads more data available for ITV2 than for Channel 4. (Although there really weren't many original shows, which was helpful--only four of the British shows in the data set are from ITV2, and only one of the non-auteur shows is.) I originally tried to include Channel 4 in the data, but it proved way too difficult to locate complete programming lineups, or even lists of recently canceled shows (which I used for the BBC channels). If you know where I might find that information, I'd actually be pretty grateful.

      Basically, you're right, I'm missing some pertinent data, which is unfortunate. I doubt the inclusion of Channel 4 would have changed much--it could potentially have raised Britain's female writer rations, but I think it would have to have astronomically high ratios of its own to put Britain on par with America. It's possible, though.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  7. I'm an American TV writer who consulted on a show shot in Liverpool last year, and I noticed that there were a few jobs on the writing staff that would be considered part of the writing staff in the US but that didn't write episodes. (Sort of how some writers on staff don't necessarily get a script.)

    These were creative writing-type story jobs - the "script editor" as well as the "series producer" and the "story producer." I don't know if you included these or if it would skew the results in any way, but more food for thought. (On the show I worked on, they were all women.)

    1. Those sorts of jobs are not included in either the American or British data--I only included writers who had been given a "written by" credit (or a teleplay or story credit), because that was the only information I could easily obtain. So when I refer to "writing staff," I'm actually referring to the staff of writers with "written by" credits, which of course leaves out a lot of people involved with the writing of a show. But when people say, "Steven Moffat needs to hire more women writers," they don't generally mean that he needs to hire a female script editor or even a female producer. He has female producers; they want him to hire scriptwriters.

      I'd actually be really interested to know whether including other writing staff would skew the results. Unfortunately, there's no way for me to get that data (at least not without a huge investment of time that I don't have). As it is, you probably have a better feeling for that than I do. Do you find that American writing positions of the kind you described skew female?

  8. This is absolutely brilliant. I spend a lot of my time looking at popular television from the feminist perspective and more than once I've lamented on the lack of female writers. I'm just wondering what you think we, as viewers, could do to stop the trend of male-dominated writer's rooms?

    1. Well, I'm no expert on that, so I can only guess. Honestly, I think the best thing viewers can do is to make it clear that they appreciate the added perspective that a diverse writing staff brings. Pay attention to the writing staffs of the shows you watch; pay attention to shows that you think have particular insight into women/people-of-color/whatever; point it out whenever you think that the diversity of a show's staff has contributed to a more insightful, enjoyable episode of television. Encourage your like-minded friends to do the same.

      Basically, I think encouraging the positive examples is a better strategy than attacking the negative examples, and I think that it's more helpful to focus on the idea that diverse writing staffs produce a better show than on the idea that diversity is a desirable end in and of itself.

      But I don't have data to support that, so it's really just my two cents. :)