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Meet the women who put words in Don Draper’s mouth

May 14, 2015, 2:34 PM UTC

Don Draper and Roger Sterling often claim top billing on AMC’s hit drama Mad Men, but behind the scenes it’s a different story. Five of the 11 writers for the show are women–a rarity in television prime time.

The writers represent a range of Hollywood talent. Janet Leahy and Lisa Albert are the seasoned veterans; they both worked with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner in the late 1990s. Then there are the younger industry players, Erin Levy and Carly Wray, who both got their big break on the show. Rounding out the group is Semi Chellas, a co-executive producer and runner of the Mad Men writers room.

Women are still a minority in television writing. In the 2013-2014 prime-time season, only 25% of all TV writers were female–a 9 percentage point decrease from a year earlier, according to a study by Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. While that’s certainly lightyears ahead the 1960’s advertising world depicted in Mad Men, those figures put TV writing on par with infamously male-dominated fields like architecture and computer programming.

Weiner says he’s never made a conscious choice to single out any writer for his or her diversity credentials. However, he has seen that happen in the industry, as he said in a recent panel at the 92Y in New York.

“It’s a crime to not have people that look like everyone,” said Weiner. “But I just picked the people I liked, and I can tell you right now that sexism is very common. You know how many emails I get, ‘We’re looking for our female writer.’ It’s a diversity issue.”

Fortune talked to all five female Mad Men writers, asking them about what it was like to work on the show, how they broke into the industry and what Mad Men moments stand out in their minds. Below, a compilation of those conversations, touching on everything from where they find inspiration to the state of women in Hollywood today.

Life bleeding into fiction

The midseason premier of the seventh and final season of Mad Men features a piercing interaction between the characters of Joan and Peggy. Over the years, we’ve watched these two women evolve from secretaries to copy chief (Peggy) and junior partner and account executive (Joan) at the advertising agency Sterling Cooper & Partners, née Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Even as they broke the so-called “glass ceiling” of the era, there’s a lingering animosity between the two women that surfaces in the scene.

Peggy: Should we have lunch?
Joan: I want to burn this place down.
Peggy: I know. They were awful. But at least we got a yes. Would you have rather had a friendly no?
Joan: I don’t expect you to understand.
Peggy: Joan. You’ve never experienced that before?
Joan: Have you, Peggy?
Peggy: I don’t know. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t dress the way you do and expect…
Joan: How do I dress?
Peggy: Look, they didn’t take me seriously, either.
Joan: I don’t dress like you because I don’t look like you and that’s very true.
Peggy: You know what? You’re filthy rich. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to!

If the interaction feels achingly familiar to many modern viewers, it’s by design.

“Matt very much encourages you to cannibalize your life and those of your loved ones,” said Lisa Albert, a consulting producer on Mad Men who first started working with Weiner in the late 1990’s on the short-lived series Living in Captivity.

It comes as little surprise, then, that the many women in the Mad Men writing room have culled from their own lives to shape the story lines that have captivated millions of viewers.

“I pitched a few stories about my workplace and my boss when I was an office assistant. They sort of translate whether it was 1960 or 1980 or today,” said Carly Wray, a staff writer on the show for the past two seasons. “The show takes place in the 1960s, but so much is about today. It’s just a lens through which you’re seeing these stories that happen everyday in everybody’s lives.”

The writing process kicks off at the beginning of each season, when Weiner enters the writers room with a handful of big ideas for where he sees the characters landing at the close of the season (see: Don Draper’s Hershey’s pitch at the end of Season 6). Weiner then asks each writer to come back with 10 story ideas each, and from there the team spends a couple months beating out story arcs and outlining the episodes that lead to those seminal moments. Then each episode is blocked out scene by scene before a writer is sent off to build the script.

It was a grueling process that required six days a week of work for some of the writers. Weiner liked to joke that television writing is for people who hate being alone more than they hate writing, said Semi Chellas, who ran the writers room in the show’s final seasons.

Many of the writers demurred when asked if any specific scenes paralleled their own experiences. “The rule of the writers room is not to kiss and tell,” said Chellas.

Finding inspiration

Inspiration isn’t necessarily far from hand. Tales of sexism in Hollywood are rampant–not just among actresses (see Amy Schumer’s hilarious tongue-in-cheek send up of female aging in the industry) but also among writers and directors. A recent Tumblr blog, “Sh-t People Say to Women Directors,” exploded with story upon story of people anonymously sharing sexist comments they’ve either received or overheard. The founders called the blog “a kind of crisis intervention,” pointing out that there were more opportunities for women in the silent era than there are in 2015.

“It’s very palpable that there are many fewer women directors and writers out there. I think that definitely that imbalance has an effect,” said Chellas. At the beginning of her career, Chellas remembers not knowing how she could become a director because she hadn’t worked with many female directors.

Mad Men, on the other hand, created a very different environment for the new crop of writers entering the industry. “There are all these amazing female role models,” said Erin Levy, who climbed from a writers’ assistant to a supervising producer. Weiner originally tapped her for season three after being her instructor in a University of Southern California re-write class.

“There are so many women on the show with illustrious careers. To be able to look up to that and want to follow that group is lucky,” said Levy.

Change and universals

The Mad Men writers room was first and foremost a place where writers could bring any idea. Over and over, each of the writers Fortune spoke with stressed that creativity and authenticity were what mattered. Weiner made sure the room was a collaborative environment where the writers could create some of the most original storylines on television. The result? Ninety-two episodes over seven seasons, and countless favorite moments for each writer.

Levy, Wray, Albert, Leahy and Chellas all named different favorite scenes–there were just too many to choose from, they said. From the opening moment in the midseason premiere of Season 7 (where Don is surveying the fur coat models) to “The Suitcase” episode in season four (where Peggy and Don pull an all-nighter at the office), the reoccuring element is always the story and how it resonates for the writer and the audience.

“We always had to be able to defend our point-of-view in terms of the universals and emotions,” said Janet Leahy, a writer and executive producer on the show who also originally worked with Weiner and Albert on Living in Captivity. “A lot are feminine-based, not out of feminism but because they’re really good stories that haven’t been told.”

The advantage to having a room full of writers with diverse backgrounds was that each could validate a feeling or story brought in by another writer–male or female, white or Asian. It always came back to the universal.

When asked if they thought the workplace has changed for women, the general consensus was that we’ve come a long way–but that there are always elements that are slow to evolve.

“It’s a little offensive that we still live in a world where this question comes up. A lot of things haven’t changed–they’re different and the opportunities are different now,” said Leahy. “It’s more about human nature and dominance and our animal instincts than anything else.”