The Plot Thickens

Today, I’m ready to say something a lot of people have been asking me while simultaneously hoping-and-not-hoping I would say: Based on my experience in SLAM, I think it’s more advantageous to be a man.

That, of course, is my opinion, and it’s related solely to my undertaking of resubmitting my previously-rejected work under a male pseudonym. I consider this project to be not a science experiment, but an art project—a lens through which I am examining the world. And this conclusion, that there’s a male advantage, is one I’ve been reluctant to make, having waited to say it until I felt “sure.” But I’m saying it today because what I’m seeing through my lens tells me more and more that people are kinder and more encouraging to men, and more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt. As a “man,” I have seen that my work and I come with an automatic level of authority and prowess, the type of credit that, as a woman, I have to fight to be given.

reading

Until recently, I had only received one differing result to Max’s work, in which Max was named a finalist and sent a kind, encouraging letter, while I’d received a template rejection for the exact same submission a few years prior. Today, I add two similar responses to the list.

The first is an opportunity that has asked Max to advance to the next stage, with the winners still to be determined. When I originally applied, I was not invited to the next stage, which involves submitting some basic additional materials, so seemingly Max’s status is something quite different.

I say “seemingly” because with Max’s successes, it’s my instinct to weigh all the factors in an attempt to assess whether there has been bias or differing treatment. And certainly that scrutiny is a part of administering this project. But at the same time if I, as Mya, applied two years in a row to the same competition, and advanced to the next stage the second year but not the first, I wouldn’t doubt whether I accomplished something or make a What If list (What if the competition opened up its second stage to a larger number of people this year? What if there were different readers? What if zombies ate the brains of this organization’s staff?)—I’d just do a little happy dance, and be excited about making the cut. And so it’s after a year of seeing all these nuanced ways in which Max fares better than me that I’m ready to just say, I think there was some bias here.

The other factor in the Bias Column is that the plays for this particular opportunity all have to fit a certain theme, which is the same now as it was when I applied. But the play that Max and I each respectively sent is a play I’ve always thought was a bit of a stretch for the theme. So for Max to still be in the running seems slightly more significant in light of that, because there are all sorts of numbers about how women will only apply to jobs if they’re 100 percent qualified, while men will give it a shot even if they’re only 60 percent qualified. But maybe there’s a degree to which a man who meets 60 percent of the criteria is still considered quite qualified, while a woman is not extended that same courtesy unless she meets 100 percent of it. And if that were true, then maybe Max fared better because his submission can speak to a portion of the theme and still remain in the running, while mine cannot.


As a “man,” I have seen that my work and I come with an automatic level of authority and prowess, the type of credit that, as a woman, I have to fight to be given.



The other recent differing result that Max got is a rejection letter that was distinct in its niceness
. This newest letter was notable because it was even more distinctly encouraging than the other encouraging rejection I mentioned previously.

I have applied to this competition twice as Mya, and both years, I received template rejection letters nearly identical to each other, following the standard three-paragraph form of most rejection letters: (1) Thanks for applying! (2) Sorry, we can’t offer you a spot! (3) It was nifty getting to know your work, so keep in touch, follow us on Twitter, and don’t be mad that we’ve automatically added you to our mailing list!

Max’s letter, however, was different. I pulled up both of my past rejections to compare them to his, and even had a close friend send me the one she got from this organization on the same day Max got his.

Unlike both of my past letters and my friend’s from this year (all three of which were identical save a word or two), Max’s letter was sprinkled with special nuggets of encouragement. Where the usual letter said, “Thank you for submitting your play,” Max’s letter said, “Thank you so much for submitting your play.” Where the usual letter said, “We can’t offer you a spot,” Max’s said, “We can’t offer you a spot because our decisions were really super extra challenging and we had to reject more people than we wanted to.” (“It’s not you, it’s me.”) Where the usual letter said, “Stay in touch,” Max’s said, “Stay closely in touch and be sure to submit again!

But above and beyond those, Max got an entirely new added paragraph whose sole purpose was to let him know how great he was. The paragraph gushed about all the enthusiasm Max’s play had inspired and let him know earnestly about the passionate dialogue the play created among the readers. He had truly enlightened them and hit on something special with his meaningful work, and it was important to them—really important—to let him know it.


To finally get some affirmation, after almost a decade, that I wasn’t totally wrong in feeling like I’d written something special was a real heartbreak. Because I only got that affirmation by being a dude.



What’s further complicated about this situation is that the woman who runs this opportunity and heads the literary department of the organization is an acquaintance of mine. In fact, I know her because she once saw my work and reached out to tell me how much she’d like it. And that’s exactly why I’ve applied to her organization a few times. What’s also interesting is that this organizationa prominent organization that is certainly a household name among theatre artistsis a public supporter of gender parity and diversity in the arts. They’ve even tweeted their support of SLAM on several occasions. And their track record supports their position of encouraging diversity—they’ve had no lack of women and minorities among their writers and artists. So to me this suggests that even those who clearly and measurably support diversity can still be subject to bias.

I’d be lying if I claimed this didn’t hurt, perhaps more than the others. This particular play of mine has always felt like “the one that got away.” It’s had some interest here and there, but it’s never been produced, and I’ve always felt that was a shame; I think it has real substance while being funny and uniquely theatrical. I wrote it almost ten years ago so I’ve mostly given up on shopping it around, but I often think back to it fondly, wondering if maybe there was someone out there who would finally see in it what I saw in it. So to finally get some affirmation, after almost a decade, that I wasn’t totally wrong in feeling like I’d written something special was a real heartbreak. Because I only got that affirmation by being a dude. And further to that, this experience lives alongside a lifetime of sexism: being mansplained about how to stand on a subway platform; being disparagingly called “honey” at the hardware store; being passed over for dream jobs when the all-male hiring team went with the guy. It’s yet again being treated differently because of my gender. And even if all I’ve been denied was encouraging rejection letters, those are still encouraging, and in this business we can all use all the encouragement we can get. And it seems to me that men get more of it.

The final notable thing is that between the three different results Max has received, something that stands out to me is that each of these scenarios involved a different play. So it’s not this one same play that I’ve yearned to see succeed being treated differently over and over, it’s three different plays from my body of work. Meaning it’s not that I have one single script that really shines but has been held back by Big Bad Bias; it shows me that, in fact, a variety of my work is given better consideration when someone thinks it’s been written by a man. It brings me back to a conclusion I’ve made before: It doesn’t necessarily hurt to be a woman, but it does help to be a man.

Originally published on HowlRound.

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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.