The Surprising Source Of Gender Bias In Theater It's reasonably simple to name working male playwrights, like Neil LaBute and Patrick Marber. Naming women, however, is more difficult. A study found there is, in fact, a disparity between the number of shows by men that make it to the stage, and those by women.
NPR logo

The Surprising Source Of Gender Bias In Theater

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Surprising Source Of Gender Bias In Theater

The Surprising Source Of Gender Bias In Theater

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Quick, name a few male playwrights. Okay, Neil LaBute, David Auburn, Tom Stoppard. Any women's names spring to the tip of your tongue? That's right, there is a disparity between the number of shows by men that make it to the stage and those by women. Prompted by playwright Julia Jordan, a young economics student undertook a year-long study of gender bias in the theater. And then when Emily Glassberg Sands reported her finding to a group of writers and producers this week, they gasped.

Emily Sands is a Ph.D. student at Harvard. The study was her thesis at Princeton, and she joins us today from the studios of member station WGBH in Boston. Good to have you with us.

Ms. EMILY GLASSBERG SANDS (Author, "Opening the Curtain on Playwright Gender: An Integrated Economic Analysis of Discrimination in American Theater"): Thank you, Neal. It's a pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And what did you find?

Ms. SANDS: Well, before I begin, I want to note that the research and the findings I'll be discussing today are, as you mentioned, the culmination of a year of research on my senior thesis at Princeton. They have yet to undergo the rigorous peer review process of academic journals. Nonetheless, I think they're very interesting and have very important implication for the theater industry.

CONAN: And so do we, which is why you're here today.

Ms. SANDS: Thank you. So, I found, first off, that the number of female-written plays is very small, in large part, because women face discrimination. Female playwrights are deemed to produce works of lower overall quality that have lower economic prospects, even holding constant precisely the script and the type of work. In one study, I sent out four scripts to artistic directors and producers around the country. And I varied only the gender of the penname. So, for example, Lynn Nottage, Pulitzer Prize winner, generously donated a script excerpt, just 10 pages, for the purpose of this study.

I made 250 copies. On 125 copies, I put the name Mary Walker, and on 125 copies, I put the name Michael Walker. I then sent out the scripts to artistic directors and literary managers around the country, 250 of them in all, and asked them to rate the scripts along 18 different metrics. I asked them to rate it along the measures of overall quality such as likeability of characters, to what extent the piece is an example of artistic exceptionalism and the likelihood of winning a prize, as well as economic prospects, audience appeal and so on.

And I found that for the exact same script, when that script wore a female penname, it was less well-received by the theater community than when that script wore a male penname.

CONAN: Yet, we read in the New York Times account of your presentation those -the men artistic directors, the male artistic directors who received this, well, there was no difference between their evaluation on the quality basis between the male and female name. However, the female artistic directors, well, they preferred the male.

Ms. SANDS: That's right. And I think this is a particularly surprising result. When you look just at the male artistic directors and literary managers and look at their responses, as you noted, they assigned approximately equivalent ratings to each script irrespective of the gender of the penname. Meanwhile, as you mentioned, female respondents assigned markedly lower ratings to given scripts when those scripts wore a female penname as opposed to a male penname.

Now, there are multiple different interpretations of these. As an economist -or a young economist in training, I should say, I'm, you know, primarily interested in the research methods and the findings. As far as the implications and teasing out the explicit reasons behind the lower ratings, that's a little more challenging for me to do. I do have a few theories though.

CONAN: Well, let's bring in the playwright that started it all. Julia Jordan is an award-winning American playwright, television writer and theater director. She joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

Ms. JULIA JORDAN (Playwright, "Dark Yellow") : Nice to be here. I'm actually not a director though.

CONAN: Oh, well, I apologize for that.

Ms. JORDAN: That's okay.

CONAN: Or at least not yet. Maybe we're just being premature. But we'd also like to hear from those of our listeners in the theater business. Men and women, what's your story? Does this study resonate with you? 800-989-8255, email us: You can join the conversation at our Web site,, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And what did you think, Julia, of the results that Emily produced?

Ms. JORDAN: I expect it. I did expect to find some discrimination. But when Emily called me in the middle of the night and told me that it was the women that were driving it, I was shocked, to say the least.

CONAN: As was - as were many of the people in that meeting in New York on Monday.

Ms. JORDAN: Mm-hmm. But I think that that the real story is - and Emily should speak to this a little bit more - is that they found - but Emily, why don't you jump in here, but basically…

Ms. SANDS: Yeah.

Ms. JORDAN: ...what they found was that - what she found with the women - it wasn't the quality. They thought the quality was the same. It was how they thought the theatre community was going to receive it...


Ms. JORDAN: ...that brought the numbers down.

Ms. SANDS: So, as Julia mentioned, I asked them - I asked respondents to rate each script along a variety of metrics. There were 18 in all. And the metrics along which the women rated scripts lower when those scripts were reportedly written by women, can largely be explained by a fear among female artistic directors and literary managers that a given work will be less well-received by the theater community at large when that work is purportedly written by a woman.

For example, I asked literary managers and artistic directors to read a script. And then, I asked on a scale of one to seven, what is the likelihood of this script winning a prize or award? Now, female artistic directors and literary managers said that for a given script, when the script had a female penname, it was less likely to win a prize and award than when that script had a male penname. Recall that the literally managers and artistic directors where not aware of precisely what was being studied. They were told that I was studying the process of script evaluation, which is an entirely accurate representation. I just failed to mention explicitly that I was studying the effects of gender on how well a script could be...

CONAN: Well, that might skewed their responses.

Ms. SANDS: Absolutely. Absolutely would have skewed their responses. So, along a number of criteria such as the likelihood of winning a prize or award or how well the characters would be received by the theater community at large, these results can be explained by a heightened awareness among female respondents of the barriers faced by female playwrights.

CONAN: That's interesting. It's also curious - one - another part of your study was the idea that fewer plays by female playwrights are produced. The argument by a lot of artistic directors is well, we get many fewer plays written by female playwrights. And you said, well that is accurate, there are fewer plays by female playwrights. But I think you're suggesting this might be a self-fulfilling prophecy. They know fewer are produced, therefore fewer are written.

Ms. SANDS: Absolutely. Absolutely. And when we talk about gender disparities between different groups of workers be it - or excuse me, labor outcome - labor market outcome disparities between different groups of workers, be it men and women or people of different races and we see, for example, employment differences or occupational differences between genders or races, we often ask whether that is a question of choice or preference. That is, do women, for example, just prefer not to be playwrights? In which case there's no issue at hand with the fact that there are far more men than women writing. Or is that women face discrimination in playwriting and therefore either choose not to enter the profession in the first place or exit the profession as discouraged workers?

And I think the results of my study show that women do, in fact, face discrimination in the playwriting industry. And so even if there is some choice or preference coming in and driving down the small number of female writers, there also is discrimination. And that leaves a lot of room for progress.

CONAN: Emily Sands is the author of a new economic study on gender bias and women playwrights. Also with us, Julia Jordan, an award-winning American playwright. 800-989-8255. Email And let's begin with Gabrielle(ph). Gabrielle calling us from San Francisco.

GABRIELLE (Caller): Hi.


GABRIELLE: How is it going?

CONAN: Very well. Thanks.

GABRIELLE: Good. I'm a playwright and a producer in San Francisco. And we started our own female playwriting company last year and that's all we produce. And we did it specifically because it's so hard to be a female playwright and get your work out there and on the stage.

CONAN: And I wondered, when you were trying to get plays performed before you started this group, what kind of barriers did you encounter?

GABRIELLE: There are just a lot of rejection letters that come out. I think one of the things that you guys are talking about was the gender bias. And I think it's really easy for men to be educated in writing and to make them stronger writers because it's such a male-driven profession or has been for so long. I think, for women, it's harder to get feedback. It's harder to get the education that you need to be a stronger writer. So that's definitely one barrier.

CONAN: If you'll forgive the analogy, ball players get better when they play.


CONAN: Playwrights get better when they write plays and they're produced and - or at least read onstage and you see what works and what doesn't.

GABRIELLE: Oh, absolutely. Stage greetings or feedback sessions are the best thing that a writer can have, I think.

CONAN: Julia Jordan, let me bring you in on this point.

Ms. JORDAN: Yes, I would like to say something. I have a friend, Francine Volpe, who went to Juilliard. And she said that she knows that she'll be produced when she writes her masterpiece. But she looks around and she said that she looks at her male friends - and we have the same group of friends - and those people, those men are having careers in the meantime, before they write their masterpiece.

And they're learning from audiences. They're developing relationships and they're developing a following. And that's what the women are not getting. They do get through and get produced when they write. When it's Lynn Nottage and she writes "Ruined." And it's just undeniable.

But the women that - women are not getting developed through production, and that's the most valuable thing. They do get produced, obviously, at places like the Women's Project. And This Woman's Theater and WET, Women's Expressive Theater. But even those companies face discrimination. They don't get funded as well. They have a harder time getting reviewed by the New York Times and the major papers.

And it's always a question for a writer, even if those arms are open, please come, let us produce your play, if, you know, there's that struggle between wanting to do that and get your production up right away and wanting to get the production that's really going to help your career. And so they put some in a very particular situation. And it's difficult for those theater companies themselves.

CONAN: Gabrielle, good luck.

GABRIELLE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And Julia Jordan, I was wondering if you could tell us the story of your play, I think ironically titled, "Boy."

Ms. JORDAN: Yes. Well, I guess I was a discouraged worker. I had graduated from Juilliard and written a few plays. They had won some awards, but they could not find a production. And it took 10 years. And meanwhile, I was watching my classmates who were male go ahead and start their careers and build them. And I stopped writing for three years. I didn't even touch it. I waited tables. And then, my friend, David Auburn, who wrote "Proof," which is about this subject, came over and he said, why don't you switch the gender? And I think he was really thinking, why don't you switch the gender to free yourself up?

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Ms. JORDAN: But in the end, when I did write my most autobiographical play but with a male lead and called it "Boy," I got my big production. And I know that there's a couple other plays out there called "Boy" also by professional playwrights that are all written by women.

CONAN: And Emily Sands, one of findings of your study was in fact that female characters tended to be, well - plays with female characters don't get produced.

Ms. SANDS: Absolutely. That was one of the findings in my study based on the data on Julia's story also rings true in that when I separated the results between the two scripts that were donated with male protagonists and the two scripts that were donated with female protagonists, I found that the gender of the playwright didn't matter in the case of scripts with male protagonists. It did, however, have large effect on how well received the scripts with female protagonists were.

In particular, female characters were seen as way less likeable when those characters were purportedly written by a woman than when exactly the same characters were purportedly written by a man.

CONAN: We're talking about gender bias in playwriting. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's get Jennifer(ph) on the line. Jennifer calling from Jamaica Plains in New York.

JENNIFER (Caller): Hi.


JENNIFER: Well, I called in just to speak to an experience I had going to theater school at a university here in Boston. I also work professionally for the theater that was connected to the university, the Huntington Theatre -don't know if I should name names. But the artistic director at the time was teaching the literary - the playwriting of the 20th century. And we got the playlist and - this was mid-'80s - and we got the playlist, and the only woman represented was Lorraine Hansberry, "A Raisin in the Sun," which - fabulous, amazing landmark script but no other women.

CONAN: Out of how many…

JENNIFER: (Unintelligible) - you know, no one.

CONAN: Out of how many plays?

JENNIFER: And we all raised our hand and said, where are the women? And he openly said to all of us there were no women of note in the 20th century who wrote plays. And we were dumbfounded. I mean, I remember us walking outside just being so crushed. And I worked as a stage manager with women directors and it, frankly, isn't surprising to me that the women were harsher because we didn't have any role models. We had been sort of told over and over again that that's just not what we do. It's the same in stage management. It's a pretty sexist community, the theater community, oddly enough.

CONAN: Jennifer, one play by a woman out of how many?

JENNIFER: There were 25.

CONAN: Twenty-five.

Ms. JORDAN: If I could jump in here…

CONAN: Julia Jordan, go ahead.

Ms. JORDAN: I've been thinking about this a lot, and especially about actresses and the roles for them because it seems to me that the audience is actually not discriminatory at all. They don't care who wrote the play, but they do actually prefer roles or plays that have female leads. I mean, if you look in the past few years, the most successful plays have been "August: Osage County," "Proof," "Rabbit Hole," "Ruin," "Doubt." Those all have female leads. They love women, and it makes perfect sense.

JENNIFER: Yeah. I perfectly and completely agree.

Ms. JORDAN: The audiences - every estimate that I've been able to have find has said that the ticket-buying audience is between 60 and 75 percent female.

JENNIFER: Yes. See - well, exactly.


JENNIFER: I just went to see a couple of the smaller shows here in theater in the Boston community, and it's predominantly women doing the support. I mean, I just have found it fascinating, over my time here in Boston specifically, but in the world of theater that there are these extraordinary supporters of the arts and theater, specifically, and we aren't screaming for our own voices. We want to see ourselves on the stage.

And I wasn't - I didn't gasp when I heard (unintelligible). I will say that I had - again, a moment of just being deflated that I experienced in my hopeful years as a university student. You know, it rings (unintelligible) because we are an open and liberal community, we like our stories. It's dumbfounding, if I can repeat myself.

CONAN: Thank you very much for the call, Jennifer. We appreciate it.

JENNIFER: My pleasure. Bye.

CONAN: And Emily Sands, let me ask you. You're off to Harvard, are you thinking of switching your major to drama?

Ms. SANDS: No, not at all, although it is a wonderful community with incredibly kind people, and I've had a great experience over the past year. I wasn't actually involved in the theater community to any extent before September. And at that point, I was out visiting Steve Levitt at Chicago, thinking about spending a year doing research with him between my undergraduate and graduate work. And he had - he was friends with Julia Jordan and had heard of the possibility of discrimination against female playwrights and put me on to the topic. But prior to that, playwriting was nowhere on my mind. So it's been a wonderful experience, but I think I'm going to stick with labor econ (unintelligible).

CONAN: Okay. Well, good luck with your Ph.D.

Ms. SANDS: Thank you.

CONAN: That was Emily Glassberg Sands, the author of an economic study on gender bias and women playwrights. She was with us from WGBH in Boston. Our thanks as well to Julia Jordan, the award-winning American playwright and television writer who joined us from our bureau in New York. Thank you so much for your time today.

Ms. JORDAN: Thank you.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.