Women, Don't Beware Women

Quick! Name the five most influential female artistic directors in the American theater. You have 60 seconds.

* * *

Now, in one minute, do the same with men.

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How'd you do? I'm guessing much better on the second question than the first. Did you even get five names on that list?

Okay, now name the five most influential theater critics, of either sex, in the United States. Sixty seconds.

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Were there any women at all among your top five critics?

The point of this little exercise is simple: Women would have to wield a whole lot more power in the nation's theater in order to be credibly scapegoated for the low number of plays by women produced on its stages.

Emily Glassberg Sands' research on the subject is a bombshell in a sleepy summer news cycle, and it raises some genuine concerns that the theater would do well to address. What the recent Princeton grad's senior thesis doesn't do -- however inconvenient the fact may be for journalists, who tend to prefer juicy reductivism, the more divisive the better -- is identify a single cause for a persistent scarcity that has myriad causes.

So you can go ahead and disregard the third sentence of Patricia Cohen's New York Times article, which says Sands' research shows that "women who are artistic directors and literary managers are the ones to blame." And, while you're at it, the lede of Philip Boroff's Bloomberg story: "Female playwrights, long aware that they're produced less frequently than their male counterparts, may now have someone to blame: female artistic directors."

But, as suggested by "Women Beware Women," the headline on ArtsJournal's link to the Times story, the popular takeaway on Sands' research is likely to be a simple, misogynistic, maddeningly familiar formula: Women are too jealous to play, or work, nicely together. Far be it from them to give other females a fair shot.
There are a few problems with drawing this conclusion from the research, the relevant part of which is based on the survey responses of 82 artistic directors and literary managers -- about evenly split between men and women -- to whom Sands had sent identical plays with fictitious playwright names attached. (The scripts were actually written by Lynn Nottage, Tanya Barfield, Deb Laufer and Julia Jordan.) "By sending half of theaters a script purportedly written by a woman and the other half of theaters the identical script purportedly written by a man I control for any differences in content and form between plays written by women and those written by men," Sands writes.

This is the headline-grabbing bit: "On aggregate, male respondents assign nearly identical ratings to a script irrespective of the gender of the pen-name. Female respondents, however, assign markedly lower ratings to a script when that script bears a female pen-name."

Provocative as that finding is, the information derives from an extremely small sample; it's a leap to suggest that all women would respond just as these 40 women did, or that all men would as these 40 men did. Few things are as subjective as the individual's response to art; reading a script isn't like applying quality-control standards to widgets. It's also not as if the same people read the same scripts with female and male names attached. It's not possible to say what the respondents would have thought of the plays if they'd read them under the name of an author of the opposite sex.

That's not to dismiss what Sands discovered, which she suggests is a tendency born of pragmatism:

The lower ratings assigned by female respondents to purportedly female-written scripts may be attributable to heightened awareness among female respondents of the barriers faced by female playwrights. Female respondents believe a script purportedly written by women will be perceived by the theater community to be of lower overall quality.... However, female respondents do not report personally believing that a script with a female pen-name is of lower quality.

She continues:

Female respondents also deem purportedly female-written works to have poorer economic prospects and to face both customer and worker discrimination. Although female respondents report being approximately equally likely to produce a script in their own theaters irrespective of playwright gender, they perceive a script to be less likely to be produced by the theater community at large and to be less supported by their own marketing directors when the pen-name is female. Moreover, female respondents believe that a female-written script will have less audience appeal and that crew members will be less eager to work on the script. Finally, perhaps as a result of the perceived customer and worker discrimination, female respondents deem a script bearing a female pen-name to fit less well with their theaters.

Maybe those respondents were doing a little too much second-guessing, maybe they weren't -- and maybe they ought to hire new marketing directors and give their staffs a little talk. Perhaps they are hurting female playwrights by being overly cautious about producing them. But it's safe to conclude, as Sands' research does, that they're far from the only factor keeping women's plays off the nation's stages.

In attempting to address that scarcity, the least helpful thing the theater could do would be to decide that one group is at fault. The problem is cultural, it's deep-rooted, and there is no quick fix for it.

Which isn't to say it can't be solved -- but that's a longer discussion for another day.
June 24, 2009 6:28 PM | | Comments (2)


Your points about not being reductive in the findings of a complex study are valid. After all it took an hour and a half for Ms. Sands to report her findings and it took 10 minutes for me to read the Times article. Lots of information was clearly left out.

That said, trying to blame the lack of plays produced by women on male artistic directors and critics is equally reductive. A quick sampling of the seasons programmed by the "most influential" artistic directors, male or female, will likely show that the men have a higher proportion of female writers on their seasons than the women do. Also, it's misleading to only blame an A.D. for scheduling. Most literary managers, the gatekeeper for how plays are fed to an A.D., are women. That would seem to argue that Ms. Sands research may be more valid than not.

Sands also says that it is true what the A.D.'s have been saying for years; there are fewer plays by women out there, therefore there are fewer of them worth producing. For years people have been saying that it can't be true, but a quick look at her statistics says it is true.

There are similar studies being done on diversity issues, which are showing similarly provacative results. You correctly point out that it is dangerous to take these results and say "problem solved." It is, however, equally dangerous to choose to ignore them completly. By understanding the complexity of what these studies are telling us, maybe we can begin to more fully understand the issues driving the problems.

Thank you for this. We can't keep simplifying complexities!

I especially like what you said about propagating the idea that women can't play/work nicely together. We can support each other without crippling our competitiveness in the "human" running.

We see the absence of women in many areas from science to the bar scene, but the tide ebbs and flows. Wasn't it recent in The New York Times that statistics showed that more women were doing better than their male counterparts in college? Forgive my generalization - I should have learned my lesson from this "Gender Bias" paper.


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