Submitting Like A Woman

Regular readers of Submitting Like A Man (lookin’ at you, mom!) will know my oft-quoted statistic: that 51% of the population in the US is women, but only about 20% of our writers in theatre and TV are female. It’s a statistic that’s been shown by numerous data collecting initiatives (such as here, here, and here) and as something that’s fairly straightforward to calculate, the number itself is not something most people I’ve encountered are highly contesting; in fact, if anything, it’s something far too many of us accept as believable/normal.

It’s the sort of discrepancy that’s so entrenched in the workings of our industry, the story of our history, and the behaviors of our society that it can’t be pinned on one singular cause. Discrimination of any kind is a multifaceted problem, which is why it’s so damn hard to stop or change. SLAM is a project I created to examine the part of the discrepancy stemming from unintentional bias. And there are all kinds of other factors that are almost certainly weaving together and causing the discrepancy too—producers who don’t believe women’s stories will sell, awards shows that are rewarding the same white male old-guard over and over again, and so on.  


But recently it was brought to my attention that there’s another factor in the mix when it comes to the under-representation of women writers in the entertainment industry: It seems that in some cases, fewer women writers are submitting work, with some instances showing as few as 25% of submissions from women.

It’s the sort of problem that at first glance seems to imply we, lady playwrights, are somehow at fault for this large, looming problem. And if the numbers are correct, I definitely think we could stand to do better; it certainly would not hurt to be half the submission pool. But the problem we’re facing started before anyone reading this would have even been born, and it’s so complicated and layered that there’s no way we can wag a finger at lady playwrights and call off the investigation. There are many reasons why we would be remiss to say that women making up half the applicants would solve the problem, not the least of which is because submissions and open calls for work are just one of many ways new writers and new scripts are discovered, developed, and produced. But as someone administering a gender bias project that utilizes the submission process, I can’t help but wonder what’s going on.

Female playwrights, and our plays, most certainly exist (I swear I’m not a hologram). So why are we seemingly submitting so much less? It’s one of these things that’s impossible to “know” (again: if we could, it would be easy to solve) and that other women and organizations have pondered before me—which, in fact, is how I came to be aware of it. And since launching this project, I’ve had many people tell me that they don’t think I’m submitting enough. I’ve publicly stated that in the last nine years, I’ve sent out 117 submissions. To me, the number is a Goldilocks-esque “just right,” but others have suggested that perhaps I am “submitting like a woman” by simply not submitting enough. (What’s tricky about that idea is that I’ve had many of those same people remark that my success rate—about 10% of submitted work has been accepted—is higher than most. I can’t say if that’s true or not because most writers I know will guesstimate their success rate but actually don’t keep track closely enough to calculate a specific number.)

My hunch is that if we work together to give more women the opportunity to succeed, more women will come forward to put their hats in the ring.

What I ultimately can’t help but wonder is if it even makes any difference for women to submit in smaller numbers than men. And if it is true that women are submitting less, is it still “fair” for us to expect to be half the resulting productions? Let’s say a play festival is producing ten pieces. In a perfectly “equal” world, there would be five plays written by women, and five by men. So let’s say their applicant pool is all comparable quality work, and breaks down to 30% women and 70% men. Does that mean they choose three female winners and seven male? Or are they still obligated to choose five and five? My personal answer is five and five, but I can certainly see how others may argue that’s unfair or nonsensical.

In essence, it’s a philosophical question. Do we choose and present work representative of the applicant pool’s demographics? Do we choose work that doesn’t necessarily reflect the demographics of those who have submitted but does represent the demographics of our society? Or since this is art, do we have an obligation to put aside the composition of the applicant pool and make a deliberate effort to choose work that promotes voices that have historically been under-represented, oppressed, and/or denied opportunity? The only answer I have is that, as with so many issues we face as a society, what we need is an all around awareness, cooperation, and a commitment to figuring it out together. And my hunch is that if we work together to give more women the opportunity to succeed, more women will come forward to put their hats in the ring.

Originally published on HowlRound.

You Couldn’t Even Send Me An Email? (And Other Problems With Submissions)

Anyone who’s spent time doing script submissions will tell you that it’s not uncommon to never hear back from the opportunities to which you’ve submitted. The notification window comes and goes, and at some point you assume the lack of a response signals your rejection. My term for this is “Default Response,” although I should probably call it the “You Couldn’t Even Send Me An Email?” Response; I think notifications are a courtesy writers are owed. Plus, an email costs nothing but a little bit of [an intern’s] time.

In the last few weeks, Max has received a couple of these non-responses, as I’ve realized a few notification periods are overdue. Personally, I am not surprised that Max is getting more rejections. This business is tough and competitive, even for a writer like Max who has been engineered to fit the current prevailing demographic. And since I’ve already spoken about Max’s first rejection and what it “means,” what I actually want to discuss is what we could do to make the submission process a more fair system that promotes diversity. While obnoxious, “Default/You Couldn’t Even Send Me An Email” Responses are more an issue of courtesy than parity. It’s other ailments that are entangling a system that’s supposed to be an equitable open door, intended even for those without agents or fancy MFA degrees or an Off-Broadway production.

Take, for example, submission fees. I recently posed a question to my readers on this subject because I have a moral and practical opposition to submission fees, but a competition to which I’d previously submitted now had a $10 fee, and if Max was going to reapply, I’d have to pay it. (The consensus was “different gender, same principle” and an interesting alternate solution was proposed.) And while I did talk about the ethical issues with asking writers to pay a fee, I did not highlight the other huge issue, which is that submission fees set apart the writers with disposable income from the writers without spare funds.

In the arts, we’re supposed to be seeking out a diverse array of voices, not creating “opportunities” that drive away a part of the population. 

Because here’s the thing: For those fortunate enough to have sizable savings, or who earn six figures at a hedge fund by day and write plays by night, a few hundred dollars per year in submission fees might not significantly impact quality of life. You might just pay it, even if you understood the moral issue with the fees. And your scripts certainly deserve just as much of a chance as those of the playwright who makes $15,000 per year as a birthday party mascot, but the result is that the submission opportunities become an open door for the financially secure writer while they are turned into a non-option for the scraping-by writer. And sure, there are countless ways in life that those who have more money are afforded more opportunity, and if you have or earn a good living, it’s your right to enjoy the fruits of those labors. You might even like paying the fees because you feel as if you’re using your fortunate position to support the organizations receiving them. But the problem is that the very existence of the fee creates a division between those who can afford it and those who can’t, and in the arts, we’re supposed to be seeking out a diverse array of voices, not creating “opportunities” that drive away a part of the population.

The other improvement that would help tremendously in leveling the playing field is making blind submissions a standard practice. When I first started out, I hated blind submissions. I was networking a lot, having successful productions, and building a reputation I was proud of. Blind submissions felt like they threw away all that hard work.

Today, I’ve had a complete reversal on how I feel about the subject. With added experience, both as a playwright and an individual, I’ve come to see how much bias is all around us. Blind submissions let the work speak for itself, and they’ve been shown to work wonders for diversity in other industries; as I’ve previously mentioned, orchestra musicians is a great example. Non-blind submissions allow readers to bring their preexisting judgments to the table instead of making the decision truly about the merits of the work. (If you want to read more on the subject, I recommend Karla Jenning’s HowlRound article, In Praise of Being a Blind Reader.)

A few simple fixes would allow this to be a more fair process for everyone. In turn, our industry would be a leader of diversity and progressiveness, which is really not a radical idea—it’s what the arts has always done. 

So how could we accomplish all of this? I believe that the Dramatists Guild should create industry-wide guidelines for submissions. Establishing no fees and a blind reading policy could do so much to increase fairness. There could even be industry-wide standards for what materials are requested for the evaluation. As it stands now, every group creates their own requirements, and while I understand that an organization funding a program is entitled to ask for the materials they want, it’s unfair to ask writers to jump through hoops—especially because the next submission wants you to jump through an entirely different set of hoops. (These can become so absurd that McSweeney’s has a brilliant parody article: “Playwrights should meet at least two of the following criteria: current resident of Colorado or Delaware; direct descendant of pirates; Capricorn.”) Much like the “Default Responses,” this is not even as issue of equality. Rather, if we streamlined the options, think of how much more playwriting our collective minds could accomplish when we didn’t have to constantly stop to translate the artistic statements we wrote last week into Tolkien Elvish.

All this is to say: We can do better. A few simple fixes would allow this to be a more fair process for everyone. In turn, our industry would stand to be a leader of diversity and progressiveness, which is really not a radical idea—it’s what the arts has always done.

Originally published on Howlround.

Thanks For the Ten Cents: An Update

Back in mid-February I posed a question about submission fees. This post is a slightly overdue update on the subject, so here’s your recap:

[Female Voiceover] Previously, on Submitting Like A Man…

I don’t believe in paying submission fees. It’s an unfair financial burden, and it’s not the writer’s responsibility to fund the submission process. But a competition from a well-known organization, to which Max was slated to reapply, was now charging a small fee. So I asked my readers: What Would You Do? Do I pay the fee for the sake of SLAM, so that I can reapply under my male pen name? Or does Max sit this one out, because submission fees are so wrong that they shouldn’t be paid, even just one time for the purpose of this project?

The consensus, unanimously, was “different gender, same principle.” Everyone I heard from concurred that it was better for Max to skip this resubmission than pay a fee, which was agreed to be an unethical request.

And then an interesting alternate solution arose from the comments and messages. The idea came up that I could message the organization requesting the fee. It was decided that the most equitable solution was not for me to totally sit this one out as Max, but instead to email the organization, once as each of us, politely taking them to task about why they’ve instituted this very unfair fee.

And so that’s exactly what I did. Except that both emails came from pseudonyms—I realized I’d need to use one for my regular female self too, since the administrators of the contest could very well be readers of this blog, and sending the email from my own public name would be a slippery slope to blowing Max’s cover. So basically, a male playwright (Max) and a female playwright (me-ish) each sent them a variation of the same email, calling them out for the BS of instituting a fee and asking them for some accountability for charging one. This solution felt like a great compromise for how to deal with a submission opportunity that Max has to miss. As my friend Ryan put it, “it preserves the spirit of the project, [and also] maintains your integrity.”

The result, unfortunately, was a little underwhelming. Both inquirers got back the same form email acknowledging that submission fees were questionable but defending the choice to use them. Both my male and female selves replied again, thanking the organization for the response and trying to get a little more info, but no further reply was received by either.

So, a win for fairness (each writer was treated the same regardless of gender) but a loss for playwrights at large, as another opportunity goes the way of the fee and essentially makes itself irrelevant. Perhaps they’ll feel so moved by the heartfelt emails they got from my pseudonymous female and male playwrights that next year they’ll remove the fee. Here’s to hoping.

Gimme Your Ten Cents (Opinions Wanted)

On principle, I don’t submit scripts to opportunities that require a submission fee. While still a student, I was strongly (and smartly) advised to never submit to anything that requested money, and I have remained thankful for that advice ever since. A writer could go broke paying submission fees, and what’s more, it should be a theatre or organization’s pleasure to read our work. Yes, it requires time and resources on their end, but that burden should not be passed along to the writer; we’re no more suited to handle that financial strain than they are.

business-money-pink-coinsPostage and printing costs aside, I have never in nine years paid a submission fee, no matter how little the fee or how awesome the opportunity.

Here’s the dilemma:

There’s a deadline towards the end of this week for one of Max’s resubmissions. It’s for a fairly good short play festival put on annually by a prominent organization, and I have submitted to it more than once as myself. Turns out that in the years since I last applied, they now require a submission fee.

The amount they are asking is nominal, but this organization is well-known and I find it hard to believe they’re too strapped for cash to otherwise fund the application process (for reading SHORT plays, mind you). What’s more, they are one of these festivals where, if accepted, you are expected to self-produce and mount your entire production, footing all the costs for props, costumes, AEA transportation reimbursement, and rehearsal space. I’ve done these sorts of festivals before, and if I’m lucky, it costs me only $200—often more—to do even the most basic production. And in the case of this festival, there isn’t any sort of stipend, shared ticket money, or even prize money being offered. For a well-established organization to ask for a submission fee for this type of opportunity is like rubbing salt in the wound; this was already a really raw deal.

Normally, I’d run screaming in the opposite direction from this sort of submission. But…the project. I want Max to reapply to as many of my previous submission opportunities as possible. A part of me feels like the fee is nominal, and I’d be paying it for the sake of the project, and I should just suck it up and pay it. Yet at the same time, giving my money feels so wrong, and I don’t want to support the notion that it’s okay to charge writers for submissions. Plus, Max is only applying to things that I, myself, would apply toand I’d never apply to this (not under these circumstances).

So, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you think submission fees are justified? Do you hate submission fees but think I should pay it, just this one time, since it’s nominal and for the sake of SLAM? Or do you think Principles Above All, and that by charging a fee this submission op has disqualified itself from being part of the project?

Leave your ideas in the comments below, or get at me on Twitter @theSLAMblog using #MaxMustApply or #SaveYourMoneyMax.