We Have A Winner

Ladies and gentleman, we have a winner. This is not a “royal we”; we refers to Max and I. We got our first notification that Max’s resubmission fared better with his dude name than my original application did with its lady label.

Before you get too excited (or too depressed), I will clarify that Max did not get a full acceptance—he was named a finalist. But when I applied to this same competition, I was flat-out rejected. So I consider him being a finalist to be a distinctly different outcome from my own same experience with this competition, especially because of some details I’ll get into shortly.

Man Woman Side Eye 1

But first and foremost, a refresher on my stance about “interpreting” this project: SLAM is art, not science. Many factors in each submission cannot be controlled—presumably different readers, perhaps different needs or wants on the part of the organization, and certainly different fellow applicants in the pool. As such, I stand by my opinion that a singular disparity between Max and I is not enough to make a statement about gender bias on the whole, and anything I say about this competition and its differing results is not something I am glomming onto gender bias at large or our industry in general.

That being said, the disparity is not as cut and dry as “Max was a finalist when Mya was not,” and I do think there’s a possibility that in this particular case, there may have been gender bias at play—subconscious or otherwise. Obviously, it’s impossible to “know” in any sort of empirical way, but I couldn’t help ponder it, and I finally figured out my feelings about it while writing and rewriting this blog post (I know, so meta).

Here’s the nitty-gritty:

For starters, it seems like at least one reader may have been the same for both evaluations; the organization is small, and the Artistic Director, who I’ll call Kathy, appears to be a reader every year. I can’t be certain if every reader evaluates each script or if they’re divvied up, but it’s feasible Kathy would have read my scripts both times. And I agree it seems unlikely that Kathy, a woman, would have been biased against another woman’s script, and/or may have favored a man’s script. But it’s been shown, to the surprise and dismay of many, that in some cases female Artistic Directors have been less likely to select work by female writers, and that’s the sneaky thing about bias—we’re all unintentionally susceptible to it.


Anecdotal or not, this experience doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists in a world in which 51% of the population is women but only about 20% of our writers in theatre and television are female.


Another thing that was not the same was the notification. I knew that in my original submission, I’d gotten a form email saying I was not selected. So it gave me pause when Max got a personal email written specifically to him. Not only was it a personal message, but the body of the email sang praises of both scripts Max submitted, particularly the one which was placed as a finalist, and talks about how Kathy and the other judges “loved” the play.

I searched my email to double check the notification I’d gotten when I applied and compare the two. I wondered if they had also loved my scripts and waxed poetically about them? It seems like something I would’ve remembered. And my hunch was correct: It was indeed a form email. It did not praise my scripts; it did not even mention the plays (or me) by name. Whereas Max’s email was warm and encouraging, filled with affection for the plays and (by extension) Max as their author, my email was strictly pragmatic.

Of course, there are a variety of things that could account for this discrepancy. Maybe only finalists and winners get personal notes, or perhaps the theatre changed their notification process and now all applicants get personalized emails. Or perhaps when I applied, my scripts were likewise loved, but everyone was scrapped for time and nobody shared it with me. But I can’t help suspect at least little bit of bias, mostly because I’ve heard it beforethat men are more likely to be kindly encouraged or even simply responded to at alleven when they’re being rejected. Take, for example, Catherine Nichols, who sent out query letters for her novel using a man’s name she refers to as “George.” She says of the experience, “Even George’s rejections were polite and warm on a level that would have meant everything to me.” It’s true in classrooms too, where it’s been shown that male students are more likely to be praised and encouraged.


I do think that even if being a woman did not necessarily hurt, being a man helped.


However, to make matters more confusing in this debate of Bias vs. No Bias, there’s an important element on the side of No Bias: The very same notification email that praised Max also listed all the winners of the competition. The second and third places were each awarded to men, but the first place winner waswait for ita woman.

With all these factors on both sides of the Gender Bias Equation, you can probably see why I was initially so perplexed on how to feel. And it could be argued that I’m over-scrutinizing items that are small, anecdotal, or speculative. But here’s the thing: Anecdotal or not, this experience doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists in a world in which this “equation” is reinforced by a much larger one that makes even less sense, where 51% of the population is women but only about 20% of our writers in theatre and television are female. For me, even as an optimist, that reality is what tips the scale of this experience towards the side of bias. It’s a tough call to make, because I don’t want to seem like I’m looking for every possible opportunity to cry discrimination. And the organization picked a woman as their first place winner, so it’s clear they don’t have any kind of complete and absolute, balls-to-the-wall bias. (Pun intended.) But I do think that even if being a woman did not necessarily hurt, being a man helped. That doesn’t mean I’m asserting this outcome was definitive partiality, but as a part of the larger experience of my life as a writer and a woman and (now) a “fake man,” I can’t say it feels like coincidence.

Originally published on HowlRound.

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What’s In A Name, Anyway?

In May 2010, when Elena Kagan was nominated to the Supreme Court, it became clear to me that names really matter. Justice Kagan and I are not, to my knowledge, related. But with her name plastered all over the media, I quickly found out how advantageous it can be to have a “famous” name. I was moving at the time, and as every New Yorker knows, there is nothing more treacherous and dog-eat-dog than apartment hunting…unless your surname is trending on Twitter. For a short, bizarre window, I got excited return calls from landlords who wanted to rent to me thinking they’d get bragging rights that the newest Supreme Court Justice’s cousin lives in 2A.

Once the frenzy of Justice Kagan’s appointment died down, life as a Kagan went back to normal. But in the years since, I have often reflected back on that experience and wondered if I would find continued benefits to my [coincidental] last name if I were a lawyer or aspiring judge. Or, perhaps better yet, what would it be like if I shared a last name with someone who was famous in my field? For example, what if I happened to have the name Mya Kushner? What about Mya Pinter or Mya Vogel? If you were reading play submissions, and you came across one with the name Mya Albee, you have to admit it would at least catch your attention, and it may consciously or otherwise influence your feelings about the script just a little bit.


What would it be like if I coincidentally shared a last name with someone who was famous in my field? 


What I’m saying is: names matter. I’m not saying that’s my preference, but as much as we can try to avoid bias, there are countless studies documenting that it often happens anyway. Take, for example, the well-known study “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?”, in which companies in Boston and Chicago were found to treat job applicants with common African American names differently than applicants with common white names. In the study, even the Equal Opportunity Employers—companies who were making a concerted effort to hire minorities—demonstrated a bias against resumes with the names Lakisha Washington and Jamal Jones.

dreamstime_xl_52741126 creditsIn the field of writing, there are countless examples of pen names chosen for these very sorts of reasons; I am by no means the inventor of the concept of “submitting like a man.” George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans) is an example that comes to mind immediately. J.K. Rowling famously uses initials, evidently so boys would not be deterred from reading her books. And the list goes on: P.L. Travers (Pamela Lyndon Travers), George Sand (Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin), E.L. James (Erika Leonard). In a way, writers are lucky because in other fields, the choice to take on a different identity is more involved. For example, Dr. James Barry, a British medical school graduate who was as a distinguished physician in South Africa in the early 1800’s, was found after his death to have been a woman, Margaret Ann Bulkley, who had been living in disguise for over forty years.

I have been asked by a lot of people if I am going to submit my new work as Max or return to using my real name, and I feel torn about it. I am very proud of and attached to my name. But the reality is we have a long way to go until we truly stop judging a book by its cover, or perhaps I should say, an author by her name.

Sometimes I think about the idea that all women writers could take on ambiguous or male names, and we could be done with this discrimination once and for all. But a big part of me hates this idea. Women shouldn’t be the ones who have to changethe people with bias should be the ones to change. For women to change names feels like a concession or a workaround; it doesn’t treat the problem at its root, and it feels wrong on principle. Yes, many groups seeking assimilation have historically turned to names as a way of achieving integration. But why should we have to deny our identities or heritage? It feels like a slippery slope to the end of diversity, where everyone is named off a repetitive list of five bland monikers.


The reality is we have a long way to go until we truly stop judging a book by its cover, or perhaps I should say, an author by her name.


Yet at the same time, women forming a movement and changing names together sounds really empowering. I see it as a brilliant coup to the discriminators, some sort of modern-day Lysistrata that swaps out withholding sex from men for withholding identity from the industry, where the women come together and take a stand. Huzzah!

Ultimately, a change of my own name is what I’m currently planning to do. Not a full-on male name, but initials or a gender-ambiguous pen name. I am tired and frustrated and ready to be treated equally now, and even if it’s a shortcut, I might not be here by the time things finally change.

Also, just because I pick the workaround and use a different name doesn’t mean I can’t simultaneously work to treat the problem at its root. Maybe some day men will want to “submit like a woman” so they can be taken more seriously, and we’ll have Buzzfeed lists for “Ten Male Writers Who Got Published by Using Female Names.” Fear not, I’d never actually propose to counter discrimination of one group with discrimination of another. What I really want to see is a list called “Ten Writers Who Got Published Without Having to Change Their Name to Disguise Gender or Demographics.” It would make terrible clickbait, but it would make me so happy.

Hey, a girl can dream.

Originally published on Howlround.