Women Behind Canadian TV: Cathie James

CathieJames

In her position as Vice President and Creative Director at Proper Television, Cathie James is responsible for hiring and staffing a variety of behind the scenes positions. Proper Television has seen their production slate–which includes Canada’s Worst Driver, Storage Wars Canada and Don’t Drive Here–double since James took over in 2010 and oversees development. She has executive produced a number of original and international formats, and currently serves as Executive Producer on Masterchef Canada which recently completed production on its third season.

James joined our ongoing discussion about gender diversity behind the scenes as part of The TV Junkies Women Behind Canadian TV series. James shares how gender plays a factor in her hiring decisions and why Masterchef Canada actually has an overwhelming female majority on its behind the scenes staff.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: Can you share how you got into television production?

Cathie James: I have specialized most of my career in factual entertainment, non-scripted and I came to that through news and current affairs. I have a Master’s degree in journalism and after I got out of school I worked at a newspaper and my first TV job was at the CBC. I came up through news and current affairs and then I left the CBC when the speciality channels and cable channels were just starting to explode and they had really good factual content. I really wanted to tell human stories and craft stories so it wasn’t a huge leap to go into non-scripted, reality TV projects.

TTVJ: As you’ve risen in the ranks have you met any opposition along the way as a result of your gender? If so, how did you deal with that?

CJ: Not really to tell you the truth. I’ve also worked on the other side, I’ve been a network executive and in my last job on the broadcast side I was executive in charge of production at CBC Factual Entertainment. Actually, I think I was really lucky because when I was coming up through the CBC my first bosses were women and a lot of women have risen up through the ranks, there’s actually a disproportionate amount of women who are now network executives. In terms of running the production companies, where the real money is in this business, most of them are still run by men.

It’s funny because at the beginning of the Masterchef Canada Season 3 we met the Top 40 home cooks from Canada and had this initial address with them in a hotel ballroom and a man in the audience, one of the home cooks, put up his hand–all the key creatives on the show were at a head table looking at them–and he said ‘Can I just ask you an off topic question? How come everybody up at that table is a woman?’ I hadn’t really thought about it but it was true. Our network executive is a woman, I run the show and I’m a woman, my senior story producer is a woman, my senior story editor is a woman, the head of culinary is women, all the key creative positions. The crew though is almost exclusively male. We don’t have one female camera operator. So this guys says ‘You’re all women. Why is that?’ I thought about it and said ‘I just assembled the best people I could and they all just happen to be women.’ All the women and female home cooks just burst into spontaneous applause.

It’s funny because I’m not trying to make any kind of statement in my hiring, but I have found in this business, that for this kind of television, on the story side of it, I think women just have a greater affinity for shaping this material. We are dealing with real people and a lot of our job is just listening to them and getting them to tell us, in the most honest and compelling way, their stories. I hate to generalize but that is just something that female culture is more in tune to. We are listeners. I’ve found that sometimes when I’ve put men in those roles they just aren’t as interested in the material.

I think men are very interested in doing well and they really have their sights set on climbing the ladder of the production hierarchy, as do women, but I think women really drill down into character and storytelling in a way that I think is generally better than what I’ve seen from men in the industry. So I do have a disproportionate number of women on my team and when people ask me about my hiring practices, I don’t say I hire women because that’s not the intention. But what I say, because this is absolutely true and I think the biggest key to any success I’ve ever had, is that I’ve made it a point of always hiring people who are smarter than me. So when I hire my team I want someone who is going to be better than I am in that position.

I always hired people who are way better than I am, and who can teach me something and keep raising the bar, and weirdly it’s just always been women on this show. That being said, our director Dave Russell is an extraordinary director and he jokes about being the only guy. Our art director he is a man and he’s fantastic and they really are the best people I could find. If I had set out to hire women, I wouldn’t have the best art director and best director like I feel that I do because those guys are better than anyone I’ve ever met.

TTVJ: What about in terms of casting a show or choosing what shows to develop? How does diversity come into play there?

CJ: It’s funny because casting for Masterchef Canada we brought 50 of the best home cooks we could find and then called down to 16. So without really struggling we get these top 50 and they really tend to be a good cross section of the Canadian population and an even split of men and women. But on the first two seasons of Masterchef men have won, and now because it’s been two seasons in a row people have said ‘It’s time for a female Masterchef.’

We’re always going to have the best person win, regardless of gender, and even if you look at the show and the number of people that make it to the final there’s always been more women than men. It just happens that a man has won. I’ve just always been stunned by this sense that maybe after two seasons we are kind of skewed towards men–I don’t think that’s a widely held perception, but it is something I’ve heard mentioned. There’s nothing at all at work that would favor men in this equation.

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TTVJ: There are just more men in the chef profession.

CJ: That is a huge issue and I think that professional kitchen culture is something that seems very male oriented and it’s a culture with the hours and the way that it is that men are generally more comfortable in. The women that I know who have made it in a professional kitchen are really tough women. I do think the restaurant culture needs to adjust somewhat. I don’t think any professional chef would say that men are better cooks than women, but I do think there’s something in the culture of the professional kitchen that discourages women feeling comfortable in there. It’s just developed into this very aggressive, shouty, sweary kind of thing. There’s obviously sexual harassment issues from what I’ve been reading, and it’s recently been written about a lot in Toronto. But that’s not really my industry right? So I can only speak about it through hearsay.

TTVJ: How do you see the future of behind the scenes television developing and what can be done to bridge this gender gap?

CJ: On the creative side of things I don’t really think the gap exists much any more. On the technical side of things, when I first started in this business cameramen were lugging around these massive ENG cameras and you’d had to have been a really strong, broad shouldered woman to be able to do that. Physically, even if I had wanted to shoot with an ENG camera I think that would’ve been really hard, but now the technology has changed. You do see a lot more female editors now. When I first started in this business there were no female editors and now there’s lots.

Technology is becoming more accessible and my daughter for instance, she has accessed editing software on her computer and she’d never see that as a techy thing that she’d pursue as a trade or vocation like it was years ago. Now the technology is such that there is that entry and you’ll see more and more women shooting and more and more women editing and getting into that technical side. That is where you see that gender inequality. There’s not a lot of women shooting.

The other side of it where the inequality still exists is in women who own their own production company. That’s interesting because the people who are making the most money in this industry are those that own production companies. I’ve thought a lot about that, why haven’t more women done that? There are many theories about that–maybe women being more risk averse or women because they are raising families not feeling that they can risk it all because any entrepreneurial venture like that is very, very risky.

I would never had have the stomach for it the way my boss Guy O’Sullivan did. He took tremendous personal financial risk to start that company and it paid off. I think if women really feel that gender gap and are resentful of the fact that men are making a great deal of money in this industry then women have to take those financial risks. But again, it’s the work/life balance and that can make things complicated and is still something that men and women are working out. We’re now seeing that starting to change where men are taking paternity leave and men are participating more in family and I think as soon as that becomes more equal you’ll see women being able to, for lack of a better expression, “lean in.” A lot of women I know are like ‘How can I work less?’ I know I feel that way but I can’t do what I do, be on top of it and work less. It does take its toll and I feel guilty a lot of the time.

Thoughts? Comments? Sound off below! Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV series here.

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