Is There A Gender Bias In Theater?

Ken AshfordTheatre, Women's Issues1 Comment

Book The New York Times covers a new study conducted by Emily Glassberg Sands, a Princeton economics student. 

It's common knowledge that play by men get produced more often than plays by women.  But why?  Is it merely because there are more male playrights than female playwrights?  Or is there discrimination at play?

To answer these questions, Ms. Sands conducted three studies.

The first considered the playwrights themselves. Artistic directors of theater companies have maintained that no discrimination exists, rather that good scripts by women are in short supply. That claim elicited snorts and laughter from the audience when it was repeated Monday night, but Ms. Sands declared, “They’re right.”

In reviewing information on 20,000 playwrights in the Dramatists Guild and, an online database of playwrights, she found that there were twice as many male playwrights as female ones, and that the men tended to be more prolific, turning out more plays.

What’s more, Ms. Sands found, over all, the work of men and women is produced at the same rate. The artistic directors have a point: they do get many more scripts from men.

I'm not sure that's revealing too much.  Doesn't seem like discrimination.  However, Sands' second study was interesting:

Ms. Sands sent identical scripts to artistic directors and literary managers around the country. The only difference was that half named a man as the writer (for example, Michael Walker), while half named a woman (i.e., Mary Walker). It turned out that Mary’s scripts received significantly worse ratings in terms of quality, economic prospects and audience response than Michael’s.

Hmmmm.  That would indicate some anti-woman bias. 

BUT here's the kicker: the bias against women comes from women.  The "worse ratings" for the female-authored play came from female artistic directors and literary managers.

Now to Sands' third study:

She modeled her research on work done in the 1960s and ’70s to determine whether discrimination existed in baseball. Those studies concluded that black players had to deliver higher performing statistics — for example, better batting averages — than white players simply to make it to the major leagues.

Ms. Sands examined the 329 new plays and musicals produced on Broadway in the past 10 years to determine whether the bar was set higher. Did scripts by women have to be better than those by men?

"Better" is a qualitative vague term.  For her study, Sands defined "better" as more successful, i.e., box office receipts.  The results?  Plays and musicals by women sold 16 percent more tickets a week and were 18 percent more profitable over all, BUT in spite of that…

…producers did not keep them running any longer than less profitable shows that were written by men. To Ms. Sands, the length of the run was clear evidence that producers discriminate against women.

Other findings?  Plays by women which feature women are less likely to be produced.  However, this may have more to do with the fact that women tend to write plays with a smaller cast, and smaller cast plays as a whole get produced less often.

You can read the full NYT article here, her research paper here (PDF) or a view her Powerpoint presentation (PDF) here.