In trying to choose a title for this blog post, I started out with something like “Why Women Need To Submit,” and realized just how awful that sounded. But in the context of play submissions—something I advocate fiercely—there is something worse: according to informal polls and at least one study, women submit fewer plays than men. One informal study put that figure at fifty percent fewer. For BUA Takes 10, the festival I co-curate, 57 out of 204 eligible submissions came from women (some of them doubles), which isn’t even 27 percent (I know this figure has to take into account the distribution of LGBT plays in general, but still). Bottom line: if you are one of the women who is contributing to this dismal statistic, why? (That’s not a rhetorical question; would love answers in the comments section below.)
When Gwydion Suilebhan recently started a conversation on Official Playwrights of Facebook intended to open discussion about disparity in female- vs. male-authored productions of plays (female-authored plays constitute 17-20 percent of total productions), the above statistic was one of the disheartening truths that emerged. After all, how can women complain about gender disparity if they’re not helping to create an even playing field?
Interestingly, not that long ago on my crossword constructors (trivia: a crossword constructor is called a cruciverbalist) list, a similar discussion emerged about the disparity in female- vs. male-authored New York Times crossword puzzles. Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times puzzle, responded to our list to say that he and his assistant had gone through the past several weeks of puzzle submissions and determined that women accounted for only about 15 percent of the submissions, a figure he said was in line with his publishing percentage. (More, he said he’d actually seen a decline in female submissions in the past 20 years, but he attributed this to the advent of computer-assisted constructing and the geeky mathematical nature of puzzlemaking, which he said tends to appeal more to men; that’s a separate debate, but, given that women do submit plays at a higher-than-15-percent rate, I’m willing to concede that may be partially true, but for reasons other than “natural bent,” if you know what I mean.)
Will’s comments prompted list member and constructor Patrick Merrell to conduct an informal survey about New York Times submission practices. What he found was that women submit less or had stopped submitting altogether for several reasons, first and foremost being work and family obligations, i.e. not enough time (this may also be borne out by the results of research on doollee.com and through the Dramatists Guild that shows that women write fewer plays than men). Despite some progress on this front, the fact is that women still do the bulk of housework and child-rearing. Add a job to that and the problem is obvious. (I’d also be interested in a study about how many of the most produced female playwrights have children; I don’t think it’s many.)
Next in line was long delays in submission response; sound familiar? Given the speculative nature of both crossword puzzles and plays, it may well be that women are putting their valuable discretionary time toward something that produces more immediate results, and the desire to do so may be a result of either internal or external pressure. This is backed up by the next reason, which is that female constructors who still submit are submitting to more satisfying venues.
Next was “too many rejections”; I’m sure we can all relate, but in response, I offer that the more you submit, the more success you will have; in the crossword world, there is probably a tenth of a percent of opportunities for submission as there are for theaters, so rejection is more frequent (AND slow in coming–oy!). As playwrights, we can’t use that excuse. The final reason was a mix, including that the bar had been raised and competition was tougher. To that I say yes! A rising tide raises all ships, but that doesn’t mean you drop out; you just write better plays (a whole other topic, I know…).
So there you have it. These admittedly unscientific results point to a problem that extends beyond the playwright community, but for likely the same reasons (comment below or send me an email and I’ll conduct my own informal poll). In response to Emily Sands’ 2009 study, “Opening the Curtain on Playwright Gender: An Integrated Economic Analysis of Discrimination in American Theater,” playwright Sheri Wilner suggests that “female playwrights are what economists call ‘discouraged workers’ – people who drop out of the labor market because of an inability to find suitable employment. One can certainly recognize and acknowledge this byproduct of bias when it’s displayed in other professions and against other groups, so why not with female playwrights? Women ARE as good at playwriting as men, but not as many are writing because as difficult as it is for men, it’s far more difficult for women to eke out a living in the theater.” This, along with Merrell’s results, and the reasons suggested by this article, The Confidence Gap, are likely at the heart of the disparity.
Last week, a post about How To Submit So Your Plays Get Produced has garnered more hits than any post I’ve written in the past three years. I have no way of knowing how many of those hits were men and how many were women, but if you’re a woman reading this who read that, it’s time to put it into practice. Because as long as men submit twice as many–or more–plays than women, that oft-cited 17 percent figure will never budge. NEVER. All of the speculative reasons for lack of female submissions are real phenomena, but perhaps being conscious of them can help prevent us from engaging in what Wilner calls “prophetic discrimination”: we will fail, so why try? I agree, in combination, these reasons create a current that is tough to swim against, yes, but not impossible. We have to keep swimming, lest we be pulled under.
Follow me on Twitter @donnahoke