Throughout the David Letterman blackmail/affair imbroglio earlier this fall, part of the debate was: was it just sex, or was it sexual harassment? The latter question depends not just on whether Letterman’s lovers felt pressured, but on whether other female staffers felt the affairs created a hostile work environment.
Well, now at Vanity Fair, former Late Night writer Nell Scovell says that it did. And while she doesn’t want Dave gone, she does want him—and Jay Leno, and Conan O’Brien—to fix the larger problem of too-few women writers in late night.
Scovell quickly describes her own experience, after joining the staff in 1988:
Did Dave hit on me? No. Did he pay me enough extra attention that it was noted by another writer? Yes. Was I aware of rumors that Dave was having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Was I aware that other high-level male employees were having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Did these female staffers have access to information and wield power disproportionate to their job titles? Yes. Did that create a hostile work environment? Yes. Did I believe these female staffers were benefiting professionally from their personal relationships? Yes. Did that make me feel demeaned? Completely. Did I say anything at the time? Sadly, no.
Instead, she says, she left her job, partly though not entirely because of the sexual environment at the office. As for the rest of the reasons, Scovell alludes to them, though I wish she would have given more detail. She says she believes she had little chance to thrive in that workplace, and being in the minority had to contribute to that. But I’d be curious to know more about what it was like as a woman in the boys’-club writers’ room. Were her ideas taken seriously? Did she have a harder time getting jokes on air? Was she treated differently from male writers?
Scovell closes by making a good point about the lame reasons men have offered for being uncomfortable with women in the writers’ room: that it would put them on their guard, not unlike the old argument against women sports reporters in the locker room. Men, she says, suggested that women in the writers’ room would make them feel self-conscious. Who knew that guys who wrote jokes were such delicate flowers?
People will probably first look to this article for its public-relations effect on Letterman, who still faces the possible trial of his blackmailer. But if it shames him and other late-night hosts into recognizing that women can be funny, some good will have come of all this.