Sherry White’s experience working as a woman television writer has certainly been a unique one. While much has been made of the fact that the gender gap between male and females working behind the scenes on television is still far too wide, White has actually spent most of her career working in writers’ rooms featuring a female majority. She spent several seasons as a writer and producer on Rookie Blue–where she was the would-be showrunner had it been picked up for Season 7–and on the medical drama Saving Hope. White was also a writer for Season 3 of Orphan Black and she’s just joined the writing staff of Shonda Rhimes’s latest ABC show, The Catch.
The TV Junkies recently caught up with White as part of our Women Behind Canadian TVseries, where she talked about her unusual experiences with gender diversity behind the scenes. She spoke to the differences of working on a female vs. male run show and why the lack of female directors is where she sees the biggest disparity in gender at the moment.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The TV Junkies: You were originally in front of the camera as an actress before going behind the scenes to write. Why did you make that switch?
Sherry White: I grew up in Newfoundland which is a fairly small population, and when I first started working as an actor and in that community, there’s a lot of emphasis on indigenous and original work. I began writing for myself as a performer and I collaborated with friends and colleagues and we created plays. Then I started writing film, again trying to give myself opportunity to perform. Over time I just felt like I had a lot more control over my career, and I could wake up every day and have work to do. I really just identified as a writer much more comfortably than as an actor and so I just put more focus on that.
TTVJ: You’ve been a part of a lot of different writers’ rooms over your career. What’s been the makeup of those rooms and how did gender play a role?
SW: I’ve been really, really blessed for the most part because I don’t know if you much about the scene in Newfoundland at all, but it’s so matriarchal. The majority of the film and TV producers there are women, the people running a lot of the art organizations are women–far more than men. It always seemed that it wasn’t going to be my experience where being a woman was going to get in the way.
The majority of the shows I worked on were female producers, often female showrunners, so I’ve just been really blessed. Then I went into Orphan Black and that was one of the only times where I was the only woman, the only female writer in the room. The coordinator is also a woman but every season of that show they’ve only had one female writer primarily. So that was a newer experience for me, though I know that is more the norm.
TTVJ: Rookie Blue and Saving Hope both have the majority of their episodes written by women. Do you think that’s because they had female showrunners?
SW: I think that must have something to do with it, just because when you’re in that world you have to spend so much time collaborating with your team that you like to pick people that you know as much as you can. I really think it’s just, like say in Tassie’s (Cameron) case, a lot of times she was picking women that she knew, and a lot of people in that room worked their way up from writer’s assistant jobs. I don’t think we’ve ever had a male assistant or coordinator on that show in particular, but I think on Saving Hope they do.
I don’t know if that worked out that way because the writer’s assistant often doubled as Tassie’s assistant and she was more comfortable with it being a woman. I don’t know exactly why. I know there’s a number of writers that stayed with us from the beginning who started off in those entry level positions and then just became a valued member of the team that way. It was never conscious. It was never ‘Oh, I’ve got to hire a man.’
I did try in the end to say I wanted to make sure I was having more diverse voices in the room for the last season [of Rookie Blue] that we were developing that didn’t get picked up. I did make more of a conscious decision there, but for the most part it wasn’t a conscious decision. I know on Orphan Black they make a conscious decision to make sure there’s a woman writer. I think again that’s just because he [Graeme Manson] has his team of guys that he’s comfortable with, so he saves one spot for a woman.
TTVJ: With Orphan Black having four main characters that are women it’s interesting that they don’t have more women writers.
SW: Graeme is a really great, very sensitive guy. He’s really not a macho guy at all, but I do find it funny that sometimes you’ll see people refer to it as a feminist show, because it’s not only about women but it’s about women’s reproductive issues. But at the same time I kind of go ‘I don’t know that you can call a show that is written, directed and produced by men a feminist show.’ It seems like a weird thing to label it.
TTVJ: What was it like then being the only woman in that room? Did you ever feel yourself employing certain survival strategies or was gender never really an issue?
SW: It definitely felt different to me, but I can’t say. I was quite good friends with a few of the men in the room before I went in there. There was a different approach to story than I was used to, but that could’ve just been the type of show. It was a weird adjustment for me because in the Rookie Blue room, like on the craft table there was a basket of tampons under the table if you ever need one you could grab one. [laughs] It didn’t have the same sort of vibe in the Orphan Black room. It was a different tone in the room, but it could’ve just been that it was a different show.
TTVJ: What do you see as some of the biggest obstacles for women getting equal representation behind the scenes and what can be done to overcome them?
SW: I think the place where it’s most obvious to me is in directing–even in the Shondaland shows I think we have women directing only two out of the ten episodes. Certainly on Rookie Blue it was embarrassing how few female directors we had, Saving Hope same thing. Orphan Black they had one or two token ones. That just feels like we don’t make progress in that area for some reason.
I’ve done some directing, I did direct a feature and some short films, but I’d never even have the confidence to believe I could direct television and I don’t know why. I directed a feature and I know it quite well, I know the world, but there’s this intimidating boys’ club of who can direct TV. I’ve seen guys with very little directing experience and the producers happily give them a shot and not doing the same thing to women directors. Or they’ll hire mediocre guys with loads of experience and not an average woman with a lot of experience like ‘She’s not extraordinary so we don’t want to get her.’ I don’t really know why that is.
TTVJ: Have you noticed any differences, other than the budgets, between U.S. and Canadian television?
SW: It’s run very differently. It’s also when you have somebody like Shonda Rhimes at the head and she has such successful branding, there’s just a lot more ability to take risks. There’s a lot more faith from the networks than I’ve experienced. She’s such an entity in and of herself. Allan [Heinberg] is running the room, he came from Scandal and he runs it very much the way they do which is quite different from how any show I’ve worked on in Canada is run. But it’s just another room. It’s just as challenging as any other show.
TTVJ: What advice do you have for other women looking to break into writing for television or some of these other positions?
SW: I have mentored a fair number of younger women and I really believe in fresh, young voices. I know I’m not the only woman or writer that feels that way. One thing people can do is find somebody who is willing to mentor them, or work as an assistant because any kind of foot in the door is the best way to get in there. Many of our great, fantastic writers–Ley Lukins, Noelle Carbone, Katrina Saville–all began as assistants and worked their way up. I have worked with this woman Lisa Rose Snow who is my assistant, and she’s someone who would do everything from edit my scripts to run my errands, but I, over time, have really invested in her voice and she’s somebody I want to hire and want to work with. So taking those jobs that might not be an immediate start as a writer, I think still pay off if you can do a good job at them.
I also just decided at a certain point early on, ‘I’m going to write stuff that I get paid to do.’ So if I got paid $1000 art grant to write a play then I’m committed to writing that play. It is about the money because if you want to make a living at it, you have to try to be making a living at it. If you are too willing to write for free then you end up writing for free and you’re not making a living out of it. Then it stays your hobby. You balance it out a little bit, because sometimes you’re going to have to do a certain amount of work for free–especially early on–but justify in your mind that it’s work and that it’s money in the bank somehow. Just make sure you make it some kind of business for yourself if you want to be making a living doing it.
Thoughts? Comments? Sound off below! Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV series here.
The Catch will premiere on Thursday, March 24 at 10 p.m. on ABC.
Editor in Chief Bridget Liszewski comes from a long line of TV Junkies who fostered her love of television from a very young age. She's channeled that passion into covering both US and Canadian television shows, and is thankful everyday for the invention of the DVR. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, she loves college football and is a fan of sports in general. Bridget is always up for talking TV and you can follow her on twitter at @BridgetOnTV.