TV’s writers’ rooms have a mother of a problem

(CNN) – This is part one of a two-part series. You can read part two here.

The writer’s assistant was exhausted.

It was April, she was spending 10 to 12 hours a day working on a production for a comedy pilot, and the baby she was carrying was due in the first week of May.

“I was real knocked up,” she says, with the kind of comedic edge to her voice that implies she’s someone who knows how to deliver a perfectly timed punchline.

When she interviewed for the job, she wore an oversized dress that covered the fact that her body was in the process of growing another human being.

On her first day on set, this came as news to her boss, whose annoyance, unlike the writer’s bump, couldn’t be concealed.

“You didn’t tell us you were pregnant,” she says her female boss told her.

“Did I have to?” she asked defiantly.

If they had asked during her interview, and used that information in a decision to not hire her, it would have been illegal.

“Uh, I guess it’s fine,” the woman said.

From then on, anytime she was condescendingly told that she could go home for the day because production was dragging, she declined — out of determination to make a point to them and, on some level, prove to herself that she could be 40 weeks pregnant and keep up with the grind. And she did.

“I was always trying extra, extra hard beyond my exhaustion to prove that I could be pregnant and I could do this,” she recalls.

The culture and patterns of behavior that make it difficult — and, at times, downright humiliating — to be an expectant, new and working mother are not unique to the entertainment industry. Women everywhere face challenges in their quest to concurrently pursue professional paths and grow their families.

But as Hollywood continues to find its way through its reckoning with sexual harassment and gender discrimination, some female television writers who are mothers feel struggles they contend with have gotten lost in the conversation.

In interviews with CNN, multiple female television writers with children or expecting children shared stories of how they felt the need to hide their pregnancies to get a job, ostracized while nursing or felt they lost opportunities. All this is happening in a field already filled with tight deadlines, long hours and immense pressure. Those who asked to remain anonymous did so because of concerns it may negatively affect their career prospects.

At a time in the industry when women are still fighting for an equal number of seats at the writers’ room table, the additional obstacles facing those who choose to be mothers are only making it harder for women as a whole to tell their stories on screen.

They know they are not alone in their experiences and hope their calls for change leads to a better reality for all women.

In order to get hired for a TV show, writers go through a staffing process that includes having an in-person meeting with a showrunner, the men or women who steer the production of a series and have final say on major storyline decisions. Landing that meeting is a struggle in and of itself for the majority of female writers. The most recent stats from Writer’s Guild of America (WGA), the union that represents 20,000 film and TV writers, states that women make up just 29% of television writers.

Once in the room with a chance to get a job, women with or expecting children face a choice about how much to disclose to potential employers, because they feel their answer could count against them.

“I know so many women that go into interviews and take off their wedding rings and purposefully do not talk about children,” one upper-level writer of nearly 20 years experience in the industry tells CNN. “If you’re pregnant, you bundle up with multiple layers so no one can tell you’re pregnant.”

When and how to disclose your pregnancy to an employer is a decision unique to every woman in any industry and extends to women at all levels of their career.

Liz Tigelaar, the former showrunner for “Casual” who will soon be heading up Hulu’s adaptation of the novel “Little Fires Everywhere,” was in the very early stages of pregnancy when she went out for her job with the streaming service. She too struggled with her decision on how to broach the topic of her pregnancy. “I didn’t want to not disclose I was pregnant,” she says. “But at the same time, I was so early-pregnant that I didn’t know if it was going to kind of stick, and I didn’t want to obviously not get the job because I was pregnant. There was kind of a lot of angst with that, I guess.”

“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna has seen this distress extend to members of production, too.

“Just yesterday I had somebody come and tell me that she’s pregnant and we talked about how to make that work with her work responsibilities, and she was very emotional because she assumed that she would be fired — and that would never, ever happen,” she says. “This show as a whole is very sympathetic to what mothers have to deal with.”

Federal law prohibits employers from basing hiring decisions on whether a prospective employee has children or is expecting a child. But there are ways those looking to hire TV writers find out more about writers’ personal lives— like asking instead, “What is your child care situation?” one writer says.

“What they really want to hear is, ‘I don’t have kids,'” the upper-level writer who asked to remain anonymous says. “But the second thing they want to hear is I have full-time child care coverage so that they can work as long as they want.”

Even in cases where having kids would be beneficial to the show itself — if the series was centered on a family, for example — being a parent isn’t always considered a positive.

The comedy writer recalls thinking it’d be safe to mention she was a mom of two in her interview with a male showrunner who was looking to staff a comedy series about a family. As their conversation went on, her children became a punchline.

“At least five times during the meeting he made jokes about ‘you and all your kids,'” she remembers. “I know that it would never be appropriate to ask, but I think part of the reason I wasn’t hired was because I was a mom. Because it kept coming up in the meeting as a joke, and the joke was, ‘You won’t be able to handle this because you have too many kids.'”

If asked to join the show, writers commit to a contract to work for a given number of weeks, the length of which depends on the length of the season itself.

The temporary nature of the work means if a woman who just had a baby wants to take unpaid parental leave for, say, the eight weeks guaranteed to them by the agreement signed between the WGA and studios last year, they could miss work on nearly half of a show’s season if the writers’ room was scheduled to be operating for 20 weeks, roughly the average length for a limited series.

Many of the women CNN spoke with understand that for a hiring showrunner, the prospect of losing one of the roughly dozen people that make up an average show writing team means one less creative brain working on stories.

But, they add, that doesn’t make the discrimination right.

“The very nature of [our work] makes it very hard to accommodate people sort of not being there for large chunks of time,” says one mid-level writer who’s worked for broadcast, cable and new media dramas. “But, also, like, that’s called life. How are we going to repopulate the earth?”

In 2017, the WGA inked a new deal with Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), that provided protections for those who wish to take parental leave for the first time. The guild’s parental leave policy, which extends to men and women, essentially states that a person cannot be fired for taking eight weeks to be with a new biological, foster or adopted child. The WGA’s thinking was that fighting for a broader policy — one that extended to all parents — was that it would benefit even those who do not physically give birth.

The agreement between WGA and the body representing studios sets a baseline for the benefits and rights extended to TV writers. The decision whether or not to extend any additional benefits ultimately lies with the studio.

Some women do receive paid maternity leave from studios. Others do not.

One solution to this inconsistent approach to maternity leave would be for studios to extend their internal maternity leave policies — the ones that give benefits to full-time employees of the studio — to the women who help write the shows that keep their business running.

“The execs, they get great maternity and paternity leave. Nobody’s like, ‘Am I going to get paid? Are they going to take my money?” says one TV writer. “But I mean, I think it’s representative of like the rest of America, where the people who actually make things and do things are not the people who own the things and they don’t make as much money and they’re not as valued and they don’t have as much leverage or say.”

There are some concerns, of course, that such an agreement could spur more discrimination against hiring pregnant women or women of child-bearing age.

WGA’s current agreement with AMPTP expires at the end of April 2020, but individual studios — or all of them — could improve maternity leave policies for television writers at any time. Writers can also negotiate better terms and conditions into their contracts.

“We’d sign that yesterday,” Kathy Christovich, assistant general counsel for WGA-West, tells CNN in reference to a paid leave policy.

AMPTP spokesperson Jarryd Gonzales told CNN in a statement: “When we negotiate a collective bargaining agreement, we take into consideration the proposals and the costs associated with them, and during the last round of negotiations, the WGA had greater priorities it wanted to address than paid parental leave.”

To avoid having to be absent from their jobs — and without paychecks — for any length of time, some female writers attempt to time pregnancy so they can deliver between writing seasons. The children born during that time are often lovingly referred to as “hiatus babies.”

Those who deliver in-season or while on staff face pressure to return quickly — sometimes from bosses, sometimes out of fear of being penalized down the line, several women said.

“I think it’s the fear of, ‘Will I be known as that woman that took a bunch of time off to have her kid?'” one mid-level writer working on a cable show tells CNN. “I think it’s so hard to be a woman in this industry that you don’t want — as harsh as [it] sounds — that reputation of not being able to fulfill your job duties.”

The writer says she once had a pregnant female showrunner return to work just two or three weeks after she delivered her baby. “It’s just the way it is, you know?” she says.

TV writers’ rooms operate something like submarines, units that are cut off from the outside world for ten hours a day and only emerge occasionally from the waters of creativity. In some cases, even cell phones are prohibited in the room. When you leave the room, it’s understood that the conversation and brainstorming will continue without you and it’s on you to catch up. It’s also very obvious when someone leaves the room.

The work environment presents a number of challenges to expecting and new mothers in particular, who have to find time for numerous medical appointments and, if they are choosing to breast feed once their baby has arrived, breaks to pump.

Four women described being in writers’ rooms where jokes or pointed comments about perceived excessive time out of the writers’ room were made at a mother’s expense, either directly to her or when she was not present.

Former “NCIS: New Orleans” showrunner Brad Kern was removed from his post and demoted to consulting producer after comments he made about a mother’s nursing — and his overall conduct in the writers’ room — became the subject of HR investigations at CBS.

CNN spoke with two sources close to the show who confirmed reports that Kern allegedly made crude comments about a nursing mother — including asking her if pumping breast milk was like milking a cow — and targeted bullying, harassing and retaliatory behavior toward working mothers.

“Why would any company want to employ someone who’s been exposed for being abusive to women?” one of the sources said. “When you align yourself with a person like that, you give other men the green light to continue their misogyny and abuse. For female employees who complain and for those who suffer in silence, this sends a very clear message that there will be no justice. This paves the way for even more workplace harassment.”

“The 2016 allegations concerning Mr. Kern were acted upon immediately with a thorough investigation and subsequent disciplinary action to address behavior and management issues,” CBS said in a statement to the Hollywood Reporter in June.

The company hired outside counsel to conduct a third investigation.

CBS’s handling of the situation drew criticism upon news that the studio renewed his overall deal with the company for two years, amid the new investigation.

Kern tells CNN in a statement that the review being conducted by independent counsel is being “undertaken to ensure that prior investigations by CBS were comprehensive and thorough.”

“I am confident they were,” he says. “Beyond that, it would be inappropriate for me to address specific allegations while an independent review is ongoing.”

Kern is currently suspended, as the independent investigation is ongoing.

His case was mentioned in a recent report in the New Yorker that touched on CBS’s alleged pattern of inconsistent enforcement of its HR policies.

One writer says the “absolute power” given to showrunners is also part of the problem. So much of how employees are treated — and, by extension, how working parents are treated — is dependent on the tone set by the showrunners.

“I think I have been very lucky, but I think even that speaks to one of the problems, which is whether you are able to live your life or not, shouldn’t be dependent on which show you happen to end up on,” says a writer, who did not work with Kern. “It’s problematic that the quality of your life [is] so completely in the balance of someone else’s hands”

Adds another writer: “I guarantee that at every studio you’ll find some shows that have the Shonda Rhimes model…where people can work reasonable hours and bring their children in to have play dates, and down the hall, you’ll find a showrunner that works writers 12 hours a day without breaks.”

A person connected to the “NCIS” franchise recalls late showrunner Gary Glasberg being very “supportive of family culture” on set. At Christmas, he’d throw a lunch on set with shrimp and lobster and encourage families to attend. Santa Claus would even make a cameo.

Glasberg, also the showrunner of the mothership series, briefly steered the ship at “NCIS: New Orleans” after one showrunner’s departure.

The culture on that set shifted when Kern took over, the source says.

In the two years that Kern was in place, the source estimates about a dozen writers and editors either departed the show or were fired.

“These companies are completely empowering their showrunners and they’re getting absolutely no oversight,” the source says. “There’s no reason that the supportive environment shouldn’t have continued.”

Brosh McKenna is hopeful that discussions about misbehavior will lead to action.

“Hollywood has generally not done a great job of controlling a**holes,” she says, not referring to any person specifically. “I think [that’s] something that the whole business is trying to deal with. I hope that all the publicity about it has been causing some people to really examine their behavior.”

In part two, female showrunners who are leading by example and how better treatment of writers who are moms could positively affect what we see on screen.

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