As it turns out, that fawning defense of The Daily Show by its women employees illustrates exactly what’s wrong with the show’s hiring practices. They write:
Jon’s not just a guy in a suit reading a prompter. His voice and vision shape every aspect of the show from concept to execution. The idea that he would risk compromising his show’s quality by hiring or firing someone based on anything but ability, or by booking guests based on anything but subject matter, is simply ludicrous.
You see, The Daily Show hires only the best comedians; it books only the best guests. And if the best of the best are reliably, overwhelmingly male? Well: Perhaps men are just better than women.
But first, a quick recap of Jezebel reporter Irin Carmon‘s findings on the show’s gender disparities: In the past seven years, only one woman, Olivia Munn, has been considered an able enough comedian to be hired as an on-air correspondent on The Daily Show (and she’s still in try-out mode). Past employees have reported a boys’ club mentality in hiring and firing. And this year alone, the show’s roster of guests has featured 63 men, but only 13 women.
Here are a few possibilities for why this might be the case:
(a) Overt sexism. Jon Stewart, let’s just suggest for the sake of argument, is a tyrannical sexist who deliberately keeps women off the air and out of his writer’s room due to a deep hatred of the gender. This appears to be the argument the women of The Daily Show are dismissing as “simply ludicrous.”
(b) Societal forces. Comedy is an overwhelmingly male industry, and The Daily Show is at the very top of the pyramid. As show co-creator Madeline Smithberg told Carmon, “The planet is sexist.” She explains:
“I don’t think Jon is sexist,” she says. “I don’t think that there is a double standard at the Daily Show. I do think that by the time it gets to the Daily Show it’s already been through the horrible sexist double standard of the universe. You’re not hiring someone right out of school. By the time they get to the candidates of the Daily Show, the herd has been thinned by the larger societal forces.”
(c) Ingrained prejudices. The comedic culture naturally views men as comedians and women as audience members, regardless of “ability.” And as Amanda Marcotte notes, this form of sexism is hardly overt:
Our culture does believe there is a female and a male sense of humor that differ. We tend to say that men have a sense of humor when they say funny things, and that women have a sense of humor when they know when best to laugh when men say funny things. This sense is so ingrained that I had a few occasions when I was younger where I’d say something funny, and get blank stares, only to find a man stealing my joke a half hour later and getting giant belly laughs for it.
(d) Ignorance. Stewart is not (a) a tyrannical sexist, but he does fail to take into account (b) societal forces and (c) ingrained prejudices when making hires and booking guests. He and his show operate in a culture that values men over women, both as comedians (his staff) and people (his guests). And he—-according to every woman on his staff—-believes that by hiring and booking the people (men) who reliably rise to the top in this sexist system, he’s making decisions based on merit—-and nothing else. Attempting to counteract the ingrained sexism of comedy by deliberately seeking out women performers and writers would “risk compromising his show’s quality.”
Of course, my guess is (d). I’m sure that the women employees of The Daily Show aren’t lying when they describe Stewart as “the word that means the opposite of sexist.” But it’s not enough for him to be Jon Stewart, Really Swell Guy anymore—-he’s the head of a comedy institution, one with the power to either contribute to or counteract the overwhelming sexism of the field. In order to challenge structural inequalities and actually recruit the best people for the job, the men who run comedy—-men like Stewart—-will have to do more than just not be overtly discriminatory.
Here’s an easy rule for any manager to live by: If you haven’t considered the societal forces and ingrained prejudices that may contribute to gender disparities in your hiring practices, your hiring practices are probably sexist. And if you respond to suggestions that your hiring practices may be sexist with a letter signed by all the women on your staff dismissing these claims out of hand, then your hiring practices are almost certainly sexist. That, or men are just better than women.