A little over a year ago, four William Morris agents gathered at a Beverly Hills restaurant to discuss relaxing their company’s policy of allowing only six weeks maternity leave.

As of today, three of those four women are no longer with the company. Beth Swofford, who represents director Richard Linklater, left for Creative Artists Agency; Bobbi Thompson, who was Tim Burton and James Cameron’s first agent, has taken a sabbatical to spend time with her children; and Joan Hyler, who at WMA repped Juliette Lewis, has started her own management and production company.

Also during the past year, United Talent Agency’s Judy Hofflund and Ilene Feldman left to start a management company and a small talent agency, respectively. And when Creative Artists Agency chairman Michael Ovitz announced that he would be heading into a corner office at Disney, CAA was left in the hands of a 16-member transition team – none of whom were women.

It may seem a contradiction to suggest that, despite these departures, industry women are in fact getting ahead in the clubby world of Hollywood’s major talent agencies, which are all closely held, private companies. But for most women agents, the challenge is now much subtler than the old clenched-fist battle to be treated as equals; today’s femme talent reps worry about how to get a seat on the board, or how to deal with the lack of an Old Girl Network.

Another concern is the mounting evidence that women agents tend to flourish only in companies that tolerate non-conformists.

“This issue is no longer about who’s better to women – William Morris, ICM, or CAA,” says Hyler, who is also president of advocacy group Women in Film. “It’s about how women at the movie studios and in the motion picture talent departments are behind their counterparts in network TV, cable, and other entrepreneurial areas of the industry.

Newer, easier

Not only are these newer businesses more women-friendly, size makes a difference, too. “Women have had a lower success rate in the larger corporations,” notes Hyler. “The most successful women in the business are self-made and independents. They are producers like Laura Ziskin, Lynda Obst, Stacey Sherr, and in television Marcy Carsey.”

Not surprisingly, the companies with the strongest roster of women agents are ICM and UTA, two agencies known for their spirited intra-mural rough-housing. UTA is the only major agency with a woman partner, J.J. Harris. And ICM has built a roster of woman agents that are the envy of the business.

Since 1991, ICM has benefited from the frustration that women employees have felt at Morris and the Triad Agency. ICM has brought in Boaty Boatwright, Risa Shapiro, Elaine Goldsmith, and Toni Howard from WMA, as well as Tracy Jacobs and Carla Hacken from now defunct Triad.

Thanks to those agents, ICM has the strongest list of actresses in the business, including Julia Roberts, Andie MacDowell, Anjelica Huston, Rebecca Demornay, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rosie O’Donnell, Susan Sarandon, Helen Mirren and Marlee Matlin – to say nothing of Samuel Jackson, Johnny Depp and Tim Robbins, who are also repped by members of this sisterhood. “Mike Ovitz had five sons named Jay, Doc, Richard, Kevin, and Bryan,” notes one senior female studio executive, referring to CAA’s so-called Young Turks. “But Jeff Berg has two daughters at home and a lot of daughters at the office.”

Agents at ICM credit chairman Berg, president Jim Wiatt and vice-chairman Sam Cohn for not being intimidated by strong women and for resisting the temptation to fall into the trap of assuming that women agents are only good for hand-holding clients and unable to play hardball when a deal needs to be closed.

“In order for women to succeed, the men they work with have to be very secure,” suggests Toni Howard, who is the senior VP in charge of ICM’s motion picture talent division. “Jim Wiatt, Jeff Berg and Sam Cohn are that. They don’t see us as women agents – just agents.”

Nancy Josephson, who runs ICM’s TV department while raising two small children, notes that ICM management was particularly supportive when she had her kids, allowing her as much time as she wanted for maternity leave.

“They left it up to me how much time to take,” she says. “They said I could bring the baby to the office; they set up a computer for me at the house; we sent a lot of messengers back and forth. But no one said, ‘You have to come back in six weeks.’ “

Josephson does admit to having made a few concessions as a working mother – she timed her pregnancies to culminate in November and December, which are the two slowest months in the annual calender of the TV business.

No support network

Even in agencies where women are thriving, there is concern that while success is gender-blind, women are cut less slack when they are going through a tough patch – losing clients or just not selling. Unlike male agents who can call in markers with pals at the studios, women do not have the same support nexus. They argue that their attempts at carefully orchestrated Sunday morning hikes with their same-sex colleagues may never produce the ties that are forged over Macanudos on the links or tom-catting in Vegas.

“If you have the clients, then you have the leverage,” says UTA’s Cynthia Shelton-Droke, who reps Paul Reiser and Sandra Bullock. “Where it’s harder for women is when we fail. It’s harder to get back up because we don’t have the same support structure around the town. We don’t have the bond, the social dynamic built around watching sports or playing golf.”

“You have to be tough and strong to be an effective agent. And men don’t find tough and strong attractive,” adds Feldman, who left UTA with Bridget Fonda and Tim Roth in tow and set up her own shingle last year. “And there’s a camaraderie that men at the agencies have with men at the studios that woman agents may never have. It’s not as if we all get together for quilting bees on the weekends.”

Working in agencies that do not systematically weed out non-conformists has been an important component in the careers of most high-profile female agents, including Nicole David, William Morris Agency’s senior VP of motion picture talent. David, who reps Whitney Houston, John Travolta and Emma Thompson, is poised to become the first woman on the board of a Big Three talent agency; she is on the short list to fill the seat of outgoing executive VP Bob Crestani.

The elevation of David would do a lot to quiet Morris’ critics, who believe the 97-year-old agency has been unable to keep its most successful women in the fold. The exodus began with Sue Mengers in 1991, followed by the ICM transplants and most recently by Hyler, Swofford and Erica Spellman. Spellman left the New York office a few weeks ago.

Bigger fish in a smaller pool

‘If I would have started my career at a big agency, I would have never succeeded to the level that I have,” says David. “I was never cut out to play those games, but by starting out in a small agency with Arnold (Rifkin), I was able to bypass a lot of the frustrations that drove other women away.”

David began at a tiny agency run by two women before partnering with Rifkin, WMA’s current worldwide head of motion pictures, in what eventually became the Triad Agency. Morris bought Triad in 1992 and Rifkin got a board seat. David did not.

Morris does have its share of up-and-coming younger women like Dodie Gold, who runs the motion picture lit meetings, and Gaby Morgeman, who reps director Gary Fleder as well as actors John Cusack and Matthew McCoaughey.

Even at CAA, the agency with the reputation for being the most monolithic, women agents are quick to point out that while most of the consumer press has portrayed the new CAA as the story of Five Guys, the next rung down at the agency has hard-charging Turkettes like Jane Berliner, Jane Sindell, Jessica Tuchinsky, Beth Swofford, Lisa Wong and Tori Metzger.

“Sure, we noticed when there was not one woman on the new CAA board,” says a senior CAA female agent. “But this is no boys’ club. The new management is very supportive of women, and it’s only a matter of time before some of the younger woman agents come into their own. Yet somehow in all the stories about the Young Turks, they always leave out that Lisa Wong and Jane Berliner get invited on the male-bonding weekends.”