Sexism in Screenwriting: How to Navigate The Industry as a Woman

by Anna Klassen on February 11, 2019

According to the 2017 Celluloid Report, only 11 percent of the top-grossing 250 films of the year were written by women. That is a horrifying, gut-wrenching statistic, but unfortunately — it’s nothing new. We know the industry favors hiring male writers over female writers. We’ve known it for years, and while there is now a meaningful conversation going on that highlights the issue, the percentage of women writers has gone unchanged from previous years.

And if you’re reading this, you likely already know the odds. You know that being a successful screenwriter in Hollywood, especially if you identify as a woman, is like winning the lottery. And yet, you’re here, attempting it anyway. And for that, I applaud you, because the industry needs women to tell stories only they can.

It’s an uphill battle to be sure, and as someone navigating the complicated and often unpleasant waters of writing as a woman, here are a few hacks I’ve picked up along the way.

Secure the Right Team

Several years ago, before I had representation, I wrote a pilot that got me a meeting with a notable literary agent. He told me that while he liked the premise of my script and he thought the writing was good, he deemed the plot “too dark for a female protagonist.” But the hero’s gender was essential to the script. Needless to say, we didn’t see eye-to-eye, and I didn’t sign with the agent.

But when my current manager first read the script he thought it was badass. He loved that it centered around a female protagonist with a messy history and agreed that I should only write stories that further complicated narratives for women. From this feedback, I knew that we would be on the same page. I knew he would have my back.

A year or so later I was on the precipice of signing with an agent, and when I met with various agencies interested in signing me, I looked for the same sort of support. I signed with my current team for a few reasons: First, they seemed to understand me and my scripts and where I wanted my career to go. Secondly, my four agents are all women. I liked the idea of having a team of women around me, as this industry, as previously stated, can be brutal. As women, they understand the gender-specific plight of being a woman in the industry, because of course, sexism prevails in the agency world as well.

Now when I walk into rooms for general meetings, pitches, etc. I know I’ve got a team I can trust backing me up. I know that I can lean on them, and that’s half the battle.

Finding the right team is essential in your success, because while writing is often a solitary venture, it helps to have a few solid individuals making sure you’re safe and primed for success.

Find a Community

Something I wish I knew about being a screenwriter before I started is how isolating the job can be. I spend most of my day alone, staring at a computer screen, wondering whether or not what I just typed is brilliant or horseshit. And I can safely assume I’m not alone.

Finding a friend or two who also write can help tremendously. And not only does this stave the feeling of being alone, having female friends who relate to the world of writing can aid in other ways. While the odds of getting hired to write TV and film stacked against you as a woman, there are also some shady things that happen in Hollywood, and often those things happen to women.

When you have someone to talk to about how difficult it can be to land a job, or how you felt like an exec didn’t take you seriously, or even just dealing with a case of writer’s block, it feels less daunting. It can lessen the burden, and help you feel like you aren’t carrying the weight of it all alone. Because more often than not other female writers have experienced similar situations or emotions. And at the end of the day, it’s important to remember that screenwriting is hard as hell, and we’re all in this together.

Find a Mentor

Similar to finding a community of trusted writers, it can be beneficial to find a female mentor, someone who has already weathered much of what you might be going through and can offer a few pearls from her earlier days breaking in.

It might feel daunting to reach out to someone, but I’ve found that most women working in Hollywood are happy to help other women. They know it can be tough for those starting out (or even those established in their careers), and they are more than willing to grab a coffee, jump on the phone, or even answer a question over Twitter.

Apply to Writing Labs for Women

There are a handful of contests and writing labs specifically targeted towards helping women writers get a foot in the door. They aim to elevate talented female screenwriters by workshopping scripts, setting up meetings with representatives, execs, and producers, and offering a support system and a sounding board.

But with any contest or lab, you want to make sure that the cost of entry is worth applying. It’s easy to waste hundreds of dollars submitting to opportunities that may go nowhere, so like all things that involve handing over your hard-earned cash, read the fine print.

Here are a few labs that have proven track records of helping female writers: The Black List’s Episodic Lab for female TV writers and The Black List’s Women in Feature Film lab, and  The Writers Lab for female writers over 40 (funded by Meryl Streep).

Learn how to train yourself to be ready for screenwriting success with this free guide.

If Something Happens, Speak Up

After one of the first meetings I took as a new screenwriter, the exec I had just sat down with asked me out. I was completely taken aback. I thought our meeting went well — I talked about my experience and interests, we talked over some new ideas, and I never got the feeling that he was hitting on me. So when it happened, I panicked. Though I declined his invitation, I felt a weird sense of guilt and shame about the whole thing. Did I insult him by saying no? Did I act overly friendly and lead him on? Is he going to blacklist me from writing movies for his company since I rejected him? I reeled with questions. And for a while, I kept the incident to myself.

But when my manager suggested I go back for a second meeting to discuss a potential project, I wanted him to know what I was walking into. So I told my manager, and he was outraged. He made sure I was OK, he offered to call the exec, and he asked what I was comfortable doing moving forward. It was such a relief knowing that he was behind me 100 percent, that it wasn’t my fault, and that I didn’t have to put up with that behavior or hide it when it happened.

Since then, I’ve had a handful of unsavory encounters with male execs and producers. But now I know how to handle it. I know that I can stick up for myself and I can use my team as support. I know that it’s OK to say something, to not let it slide, and to push back against this type of behavior.

All this to say, you should always do what you’re most comfortable within the moment. If you’re in a situation which feels creepy or gross or even just a bit off, you can leave. You can make up an excuse to get out of there or you can simply walk out. As the last few years have shown, "time's up" on sexism in Hollywood. Though it persists, you should feel empowered to combat it in whatever way you see fit.

Know That You’ll Have To Work Harder

If you’re pursuing a career in screenwriting as a woman you probably already know how difficult it will be. Is it fair? Hell no, but it’s important to embrace this fact nonetheless. Know that it will be harder for you than some of your male peers, but don’t let it make you resentful or sour. Instead, use it as fire for your writing. Know that you probably won’t get a fair shake, that your writing may be judged more harshly, but don’t let it deter you from your craft. Know that you will most likely have to work twice as hard to get half as far, but don’t let it break you. Know these things to be true so they don’t have the opportunity to destroy you.

Because you have a unique voice. You have a story that no one else can tell. You have narratives inside of you that will inspire audiences, make people feel, and drive more young women to create. Knowing this, at least for me, makes it a worthwhile fight.

Anna is an editor and screenwriter. She previously worked at Bustle as an Entertainment Editor, as well as Newsweek, The Daily Beast, and BuzzFeed.

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