Arts & Entertainment

TV writers get more parental leave — and that could help Hollywood's diversity problem

TV writer John Pardee is pictured with his family. He barely took time off of work when he and his husband adopted their first child.
TV writer John Pardee is pictured with his family. He barely took time off of work when he and his husband adopted their first child.
/Courtesy of John Pardee

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After years of waiting, John Pardee and his husband became new parents, adopting newborn Westin. At the time, Pardee was a writer for the hit show "Desperate Housewives." Parental leave was unheard of for television writers.

"It never even occurred to me to ask for time off or to have time off," Pardee said. "I didn't even think about it, so I was back at work the next day really."

Pardee shared his story with the Writers Guild when it launched a working group for parents more than a year ago. Many of the writers in the group were moms, who said becoming pregnant is widely seen as a job killer. One writer said her agent instructed her to bring a bag of cookies to a job interview so the folks hiring would think she was fat, not pregnant.

"The more serious stories that I have heard had to do with studios often docking pay when they found out a woman had taken time off, demanding money back or withholding pay that was due, things like that," explained Ann Farriday, an organizer with the guild.

She notes writers often move from show to show — which means they usually aren't eligible for many of the same parental benefits other workers can access. That's why the Writers Guild negotiated a deal with the Producers Guild earlier this year that includes eight weeks of unpaid leave for new parents.

TV writer Daisy Gardner is cautiously optimistic about the new policy because she has first-hand experience the work-life balance struggle. The mother of two has written for shows like "Modern Family," "30 Rock" and "Californication."

"I think the thing that's different about our industry is you may be working 26-hour days," Gardner said. "And that was on top of a month of getting home sometime between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. every single night… It's impossible to have children at that point."

A kid’s drawing on a storyboard in the office of
A kid’s drawing on a storyboard in the office of "Grey’s Anatomy" Producer Zoanne Clack.
/Alex Cohen/KPCC

Gardner knows many TV writers are well compensated, but as a parent, time can be more valuable than money sometimes. She said studios really struggle with the work-life balance, because TV show creators are under a lot of pressure to succeed in today's competitive market.

"The one exception seems to be Shondaland, which seems to be the mythical place of awesomeness," Gardner said.

Shondaland is Shonda Rhimes' production company, which has created huge hit series like "Scandal" and "Grey's Anatomy."

"Since Shonda has been so accommodating, we are able to give more to her, because she is able to give that to us," said Zoanne Clack, the executive producer of "Grey's Anatomy."

Zoanne Clack, the executive producer of
Zoanne Clack, the executive producer of "Grey's Anatomy," is pictured with her children.
/Courtesy of Zoanne Clack

When Clack told Rhimes she was having twins, her boss was ecstatic and happily gave her several months off. But the process of hiring a replacement can often be time-consuming and costly for the rest of the production.

"[There] will have to be one less explosion in your finale if you have to hire this other person," Clack said. "I mean, I think it takes a lot of finagling and creative budgeting of time and creativity and money to make it work."

It's difficult to say how much more money the Guild's new parental leave could cost. We reached out to the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, but they chose not to comment.

Clack admits, for some shows, this new provision could really sting.

"Especially if it's a new show when they don't even know if they're going to be there in three months, and they don't want to hire someone who's not going to be there," Clack said.

She is quick to add, though, that there is a real return on investment when shows make parental leave a priority — especially when it comes to diversity in Hollywood. According to a report from the Writers Guild, women only held 29 percent of the jobs in television last year.

According to Gardner, when women become moms and lose those rare spots permanently, the shows they worked on lose out, too.

"Because if you don't have numbers, you don't have mentors, and you don't have someone who can say, 'you know that thing that she said, that is a good idea.' Or actually, 'that is funny!'" Gardner added, "There's no one to combat implicit bias."

Will protected parental leave solve Hollywood's diversity problems? Gardner isn't holding her breath. But she does think the move is an exceptional act one.