Letterman is sexist, says female writer

Former employee on US talk show says she quit over 'hostile' office environment

Guy Adams
Thursday 29 October 2009 01:00

A woman who was hired to write jokes for David Letterman's talk show has reignited the debate about the working culture at his scandal-hit New York office, describing it as so hostile and sexist an office environment that she had to resign.

Nell Scovell, who worked on the programme for five months, described in an article for Vanity Fair how senior male employees there frequently enjoyed adulterous affairs with their female subordinates, who would gain professional benefits from those relationships. Her revelations come after Mr Letterman, who is married, stunned his audience by confessing, live on air, to a string of his own office affairs. That admission was forced after an alleged blackmail attempt by one former mistress's ex-boyfriend, who is now facing charges.

Ms Scovell's account detailed a workplace riven with complex sexual politics and gossip. "Did Dave hit on me? No," she recalled. "Did he pay me enough extra attention that it was noted by another writer? Yes. Was I aware of rumours that Dave was having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes."

As to the pervading sexual culture in the 62-year-old's office, Ms Scovell continued her string of rhetorical questions to describe an overbearingly blokeish environment in which women were only promoted if they agreed to sleep with their superiors.

"Was I aware that other high-level male employees were having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Did these female staffers... wield power disproportionate to their job titles? Yes. Did that create a hostile work environment? Yes. Did I believe [they] were benefiting professionally from their personal relationships? Yes. Did that make me feel demeaned? Completely."

Ms Scovell left the show in 1990. But her article, for Vanity Fair's website, claims that little has changed in the years since her departure. In the 27 years it has been on air, Mr Letterman's show has hired only seven female writers. Most decided to leave after a short period.

Together, she notes, female joke writers on his staff stayed in the job for a combined total of 17 years. By contrast, male members of the 14-strong writing team have clocked up a hugely disproportionate 378 years at the coalface.

After leaving the chatshow's New York office, Ms Scovell went on to enjoy a successful career in Los Angeles. She said she had no intention of filing a lawsuit, and denied that her article – mentioned on many of the evening news bulletins – was inspired by a desire for revenge.

"I want to shine a light on gender inequality in that particular workplace," she said. "It pains me that almost 20 years later, the situation for female writers in late night television hasn't improved... I just want Dave to hire some qualified female writers and then treat them with respect."

Even without the latest blow, Mr Letterman has endured a torrid couple of weeks since he sat down at his desk and confessed to his studio audience, in trademark deadpan fashion, that he had done "some terrible, terrible things".

It emerged that one of his mistresses, a production assistant called Stephanie Birkitt, had recorded details of their encounters in a diary. That diary was allegedly used by her ex-boyfriend, a CBS producer called Robert Halderman, to attempt to extort $2m[£1.2m] from Mr Letterman.

Mr Halderman, who pleads not guilty, was arrested and is awaiting trial. In the meantime, a series of compromising photographs of Mr Letterman and female co-workers have been published by the supermarket tabloids. His wife's reaction to the scandal is so far unknown.

The broadcaster's production company, Worldwide Pants Inc, has declined to comment on Ms Scovell's revelations. But they may not be entirely fazed by the ongoing controversy: since news of his extra-marital indiscretions broke, Mr Letterman's TV ratings have soared above the 5 million level, more than double that of his fiercest rival, NBC's Conan O'Brien.

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