Universal TV Head’s Plan to Change Hollywood Culture: ‘Conscientious Men and More Women in Control’

Power Women Breakfast L.A.: Pearlena Igbokwe discusses diversity in the business with Jennifer Salke, Monica Owusu-Breen and Jason Katims

With longstanding gender inequality in Hollywood and a renewed focus on cases of rampant sexual harassment, Universal Television head Pearlena Igbokwe said there is a secret weapon to changing the industry’s male-dominated culture.

“The key is, you need to have incredibly conscientious men and more women in control,” Igbokwe said at TheWrap’s Power Women Breakfast at the Montage Beverly Hills in Los Angeles on Thursday.

Igbokwe was joined by “Friday Night Lights” executive producer Jason Katims, “Midnight Texas” producer Monica Owusu-Breen and NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke on a panel titled “Embracing Inclusion: Telling Stories That Champion the New Narrative.”

They discussed how they are creating change through developing, writing and producing stories of inclusion that encourage understanding.

NBC is soon launching “Female Forward,” a new annual initiative focused on female directors among scripted series. But Salke said that this past season, NBC has felt the real need to do something to include more women in the creative processes.

“This past season, we’ve felt a real need to do something,” she said. “I kept saying, I need to get a toilet plunger and plunge through the process because it just feels constipated. [Finding] female directors as we’re trying to staff these project and finding women to helm these pilots was excruciating.”

Salke said there is a shortage of experienced women to hire. “There were six names out there, and everyone was kind of grabbing them and they were out there making a movie or a show for Netflix,” she said. “It was really sobering and had been leading up to that, but it was really frustrating.”

She added, however, that people are embracing the impending change, and praised FX impresario Ryan Murphy for inspiring her to make a difference.

“We’re not just going to bring female directors into the process to shadow episodes, but they are going to leave that very season directing an episode of the show,” added Salke. “People want this. They are ready to push women to the forefront. There are a lot of bad guys in the world, but there are so many amazing men that just want to see change and I don’t think we can underestimate that there’s a great force of allies out there.”

Katims added that inclusion means “both parts of the equation: in front of the camera and behind the camera in the writers room. I think that’s an important part of the necessary change and cultural change that we’ve been seeing a lot — and that needs to continue to happen.”

He added, “For me, to see a difference from what it was and what it’s becoming is so important.”

“I agree with Jason,” Owusu-Breen chimed in, adding that in the past, the shows she’s worked on “were recognizing differences between human beings, and they were very particular histories that made the stories richer.” She added that her life has always been diverse given that her dad is from Africa and her mother is from Spain.

“My life has always been diverse — there’s no aiming for diversity, it’s just where I came from,” she said. “I feel like now shows are catching up to the world I’ve always lived in.”

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