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.
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 before—that men are more likely to be kindly encouraged or even simply responded to at all—even 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 was—wait for it—a 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.