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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Max Gets Mail (The First Response Is In)

When people first find out about Submitting Like A Man, their reaction is almost always an expression of excitement, quickly followed by, “I can’t wait for your results!” Ah, yes, results. “Have you heard back from any of the submissions yet?? Will you tell us when you have? Do you think they’re going to be depressing?” Well, wait no longer. The first response is in, and I’ll tell you what it is, just as soon as you read the other things I want to say first.

First and foremost, let me take this opportunity to remind you that I know this project is totally, completely non-scientific. You will notice I use the word “project” instead of “experiment,” and that’s intentional. I consider SLAM to be art, not science; it’s a lens I’m using to examine an experience, not a set of quantifiable data coming out of a controlled environment.

woman-157445_640Bearing that disclaimer in mind, there are several “interpretations” that can be made based on the responses Max gets to his submissions over the course of the coming months.

If Max is marginally more successful than me, then it’s my opinion that there isn’t a lot to glean. Since this is so non-scientific, I feel it’s safe to assume that a small disparity is just random chance. A friend of mine disagrees with this reasoning, and believes any discrepancy between Max and I is significant, since it’ll mean someone said yes to him even though they passed on me. I think there are too many other factors at play to make anything of it in that situation.

That brings up the next scenario: What if Max is wildly more successful than me? I hear from a lot of people who simultaneously want Max to succeed more than me because it will make a [non-scientific] point, yet also do not want him to be more successful than me because it would be depressing.


I hear from a lot of people who simultaneously want Max to succeed because it will make a [non-scientific] point, yet also do not want him to be more successful than me because it would be depressing.


In my opinion, if Max were to be clearly, distinctly more successful than me, it would indicate this business needs to take a long, hard look at itself. Maybe there would be viral outrage (#DownWithMax), and maybe things would change for the better. For example, perhaps we’d create an industry standard requiring blind submissions, as many people have been advocating for years, and which famously worked wonders for orchestra musicians. That kind of progress would be great, although since we’ve been calling for change in theatre, TV, and film for a long time and not much has happened, it may be too optimistic.

What I think would actually be the worst about this outcome—Max being wildly more successful than I—would be the unavoidable feeling for me (and by extension many others too, I imagine) that I have seemingly been discriminated against. It will imply I’ve lost years of experience and opportunity that could have furthered my career, and it will be hard not to feel angry and cheated.

The final scenario, of course, is that Max may end up being equally or less successful than I have been. If Max is no more successful than I, it could be interpreted as a sign that I don’t need to worry my rejections ever necessarily had anything to do with my gender. But this outcome has a catch, because it means SLAM isn’t showing a gender bias—my writing just isn’t good enough.

You may think I hate the idea of that outcome, but it’s actually not something that would bother me; I am already accustomed to how tough it is to make it as a writer, and I’d happily accept that my writing isn’t good enough if it means I can confidently feel I’ve been treated fairly. If Max’s success rate is on par with my own, I can proceed with my life as a writer feeling that my gender is respected and equal, at least in the scope of this project.


The comments and messages I’ve received from men and women alike indicate that we, on the whole, are eager to follow this journey because we more or less expect Max to get different responses than I did.


So, are you ready to hear what happened with Max’s first response?

He was rejected. Just like me.

You’re probably not sure if you should “yay” or “boo.” In a way, although I would’ve loved an acceptance for the program that rejected him, it’s kind of the best rejection I’ve ever gotten, because it was a win for fairness.

Beyond this actual response and its happy/sad duality, what I think speaks volumes more is not the outcome itself, but the conversation growing around it. As I’ve spoken about in Thank You for Not Being Trolls, I have been so pleasantly surprised at how well SLAM has been received. Aside from a few dissenters who aren’t on board with the project because it’s not scientific enough, the comments and messages I’ve received from men and women alike indicate that we, on the whole, are eager to follow this journey because we more or less expect Max to get different responses than I did. It’s almost shocking—we live in a world where it’s normal, perhaps even obvious, to think there would be a difference in acceptance of the exact same piece of writing when it has a male versus female name.

We should live in and strive for a world where this project would be pointless. But from the feedback I’ve gotten, we don’t think it’s pointless. Even the dissenters agree there’s a point to be made. To me, it’s this conversation, and the cognizance of and agreement about this subject, that says more than any actual results ever could.

Originally published on Howlround.