Monthly Archives: June 2009

‘Opening the curtain’

Thesis tackles gender bias in American theater


Do female playwrights have more difficulty getting their work produced, compared to their male counterparts? Economics student Emily Glassberg Sands ’09 took on this controversial and complex question in her senior thesis and revealed some surprising results.



Sands used an experimental survey to see if a script was better received when its author was a man. She sent identical scripts, written by prominent female playwrights, to artistic directors and theater managers, and labeled the works with different pen names — Mary Walker vs. Michael Walker, for instance. Each recipient was asked to rate the script that he or she received.

Male playwrights received more favorable reviews, and Sands’ data showed that women reviewers were responsible for the bias against women. Specifically, women reading plays by women assigned lower ratings on questions about whether the characters were likable and how likely it would be that the playwright would win a prize.

“It’s not clear that it’s pure, taste-based gender discrimination by the women,” Sands explained in an interview with PAW. “It seems to be that the women have a heightened awareness of the barriers [female playwrights] face.”

The relatively few women who are artistic directors and theater managers, Sands said, “are definitely the outsiders, and as outsiders, they are probably trying to make the safe bet. In general, the safe bet is usually a work by a man because historically, it’s been more widely accepted in the theater community. … Once I looked more into the literature, I realized that [the apparent bias is] not quite as much of an anomaly as it sounds.”

Sands presented her findings to about 200 theater practitioners and industry experts in New York City June 22. Her work also received attention from media outlets, including The New York Times, National Public Radio, and Bloomberg.

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