‘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.

 

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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.

In addition to the experimental research on script review, Sands examined real-world data to address important questions about the availability of female-written scripts and the commercial viability of those scripts. Her analysis of Broadway ticket sales in the last decade showed that productions of plays written by women do better at the box office, but they do not receive longer runs in the theater.

The idea for Sands’ thesis first came up in a conversation with economist and family-friend Steven Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics. Sands saw great potential in exploring the case of possible discrimination in American theater (she plans to study labor economics as a Ph.D. student at Harvard), and the topic also seemed to be a perfect match with her adviser, Professor Cecilia Rouse, who had published noteworthy research on gender discrimination in symphony orchestra auditions.

But Sands had doubts about whether her work would yield useful results. While the Princeton thesis has the potential to generate notable things — Wendy Kopp ’89′s Teach for America, for example — for most seniors, it is valued more as a learning experience, a chance to do rigorous, in-depth research.

When she finished her work, Sands was anxious to share her findings with the theater professionals who aided her initial understanding of the topic.

Speaking in New York gave her thesis “life,” Sands said. “It was great to be in front of that audience, which was so invested in the results,” she said. “They were incredibly responsive.”

 

Read more: Emily Glassberg Sands ’09 shares her thoughts about economics on her blog, An Economic Eye, which covers both serious topics (the case for compensating organ donors) and less-serious ones (the “positive externalities” of beer consumption at Princeton Reunions).