Five of the eleven writers on MAD MEN are women, which is just another way this venerable hit is unique. Recently, these writers spoke about the show, sexism in Hollywood, and – yes, it’s true – what the writers room is really like:
by Laura Lorenzetti
Don Draper and Roger Sterling often claim top billing on AMC’s hit drama Mad Men, but behind the scenes it’s a different story. Five of the 11 writers for the show are women–a rarity in television prime time.
The writers represent a range of Hollywood talent. Janet Leahy and Lisa Albert are the seasoned veterans; they both worked with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner in the late 1990s. Then there are the younger industry players, Erin Levy and Carly Wray, who both got their big break on the show. Rounding out the group is Semi Chellas, a co-executive producer and runner of the Mad Men writers room.
Women are still a minority in television writing. In the 2013-2014 prime-time season, only 25% of all TV writers were female–a 9 percentage point decrease from a year earlier, according to a study by Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. While that’s certainly lightyears ahead the 1960’s advertising world depicted in Mad Men, those figures put TV writing on par with infamously male-dominated fields like architecture and computer programming.
Weiner says he’s never made a conscious choice to single out any writer for his or her diversity credentials. However, he has seen that happen in the industry, as he said in a recent panel at the 92Y in New York.
“It’s a crime to not have people that look like everyone,” said Weiner. “But I just picked the people I liked, and I can tell you right now that sexism is very common. You know how many emails I get, ‘We’re looking for our female writer.’ It’s a diversity issue.”
Fortune talked to all five female Mad Men writers, asking them about what it was like to work on the show, how they broke into the industry and what Mad Men moments stand out in their minds. Below, a compilation of those conversations, touching on everything from where they find inspiration to the state of women in Hollywood today.
Life bleeding into fiction
The midseason premier of the seventh and final season ofMad Men features a piercing interaction between the characters of Joan and Peggy. Over the years, we’ve watched these two women evolve from secretaries to copy chief (Peggy) and junior partner and account executive (Joan) at the advertising agency Sterling Cooper & Partners, née Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Even as they broke the so-called “glass ceiling” of the era, there’s a lingering animosity between the two women that surfaces in the scene.
Peggy: Should we have lunch?
Joan: I want to burn this place down.
Peggy: I know. They were awful. But at least we got a yes. Would you have rather had a friendly no?
Joan: I don’t expect you to understand.
Peggy: Joan. You’ve never experienced that before?
Joan: Have you, Peggy?
Peggy: I don’t know. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t dress the way you do and expect…
Joan: How do I dress?
Peggy: Look, they didn’t take me seriously, either.
Joan: I don’t dress like you because I don’t look like you and that’s very true.
Peggy: You know what? You’re filthy rich. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to!
If the interaction feels achingly familiar to many modern viewers, it’s by design.