Gender Bias in the Theatre

June 26, 2009

I read this article in the NY Times called “Rethinking Gender Bias In The Theater,” and I found it to be really surprising and provocative.

Quoting from the article (which was written by Patricia Cohen and ran in the paper on June 23, 2009):

When more than 160 playwrights and producers, most of them female, filed into a Midtown Manhattan theater Monday night, they expected to hear some concrete evidence that women who are authors have a tougher time getting their work staged than men. And they did. But they also heard that women who are artistic directors and literary managers are the ones to blame.

Read the article for more details. And then, if you’re really interested, read the comments, which are also fascinating.

I expected to feel haughty and defensive about the article, but that’s not what happened. I now feel conflicted. The writer in me feels angry. The woman in me kind of understands. I think in many ways women are more critical of other women than men are. I’m just surprised it shows up so blatantly in this research. I’ll admit, knowing I’m braving dangerous territory here, that I’m guilty, even as a female conductor, of being slightly disappointed to sit in the audience, open a program, and learn that a woman is conducting. And even if I’m ultimately impressed with her work, I definitely wait for her to prove herself.

There is a group of us female theater conductors and composers who all know each other, and I’m not talking about these women. I know their work and I am excited and proud when they are on the podium … or at the piano… or writing the score or the orchestrations. But if I’m at a performance and I’ve never heard of the conductor, one of two things happens. If it’s a man, I don’t think twice about it. If it’s a woman, I go, “Hmm. This will be interesting.”

What is that?

We have a female pastor in my church and I know she has to jump through the same kinds of hoops. The first time I heard her preach I waited for her to wow me. She did. Harvard-educated, supremely intelligent, thoughtful, liberal, provocative. And yet, had she not been female, would I have been as hesitant to grant my approval, or would I have assumed he’d be great until he proved otherwise? I’m trying to imagine and I can’t quite figure it out.

So the obvious next question is, how does this apply to my work? I recently applied for something and was encouraged to include the words “as a woman…” in the essay. I resisted, not because I have any problem with being a woman, obviously, but because I don’t need to be the Gloria Steinem of musical theater writers. Like my work or don’t, but none of it should be simply because I’m a woman.

Food for thought.

5 thoughts on “Gender Bias in the Theatre”

  1. Anonymous on said:

    Georgia, this is so fascinating to me. I have thought about this a lot recently because Jim’s boss is female, and the only one in his office. She often “freaks out” on them when things aren’t going well and I think things like “oh, menopause, you beast.” I see that as a weakness, yet if his boss was a man I would probably just think he was an ass.
    And yes, women tend to be so much more critical of one another than they are of men. I think part of it is that we are so much more critical of ourselves in the first place. So when we see another woman trying to succeed we expect them to have to “try” as hard as we do.
    I also think there’s an element of survival of the fittest kicking in. We are competition for one another in a very basic sense and I think that there is some hard wiring that drives us to judge our competition (and imagine ways to outshine them).
    It’s totally weird and “girly” but I think it’s an urge we have to consciously fight every day. Even as I type this I am embarrassed about how often I let myself do this.
    Food for thought, indeed. Thanks for sharing this!

  2. natalie k stephens on said:

    there’s a very fine line that women, especially ambitious women, have to walk in the world today – on the one hand, we instinctively want to bear our feminine muscle, shock men that we are indeed their equals; on the other, we are hesitant to come across as overtly feminine. there’s something that reads as overplayed in the whole femininity thing.

    that’s not to say that i’m anti-feminist; it’s just that for some reason i don’t feel especially inclined to wave my Rosie the Riveter bandana. i don’t want to be “that girl” – i’d rather quietly smile at little successes.

    having read the article, i share your confusion – what IS it about seeing a woman’s name in the program that makes us raise our eyebrows and immediately put pencil to scorecard waiting for stumbles? is it because we instinctively feel that the artist in whatever capacity, “as a woman,” must have jumped some serious hurdles? “what,” we think, “is so good that SHE got through all of THAT to get HERE?”

    is it our inner competitor? are we looking to her as an example, a mentor? or are we just living up to what we know to be true – women dress up for other women, not for men, because we know they are looking more closely. we know where to look for the bumps, the snags, the pantylines, the curling-iron crease in the hair, the mascara dots along the brow bone… or in this case, excessively mushy plots, predictable chord progressions, weak conductor’s hands…

    i have to say i believe that this is subconscious. i do not think we would purposefully discriminate against our own kind. either way, an interesting study… perhaps the foremost female players in the arts can start to move towards a more level playing field and happily share the territory with their fellow man… er… woman.

  3. K. Simmonds on said:


    As usual, thanks for your honesty. I do the same thing to people with southern accents and black men. (As a gay man who’s been nurtured and inspired by all manner of capable and talented women, I can honestly say I don’t second guess women or hold them to a higher standard.) Bottom line as I see it: we’ve allowed our minds to become colonized by white patriarchy. And only recently have I begun to see how essential it is for white women to stand with people of color and the LGBT community in the larger struggle for equality. So glad you’re talking about this.

  4. loff56 on said:

    Hey Georgia, I’ll take the White Male perspective on this one. 🙂

    I was also fascinated with this article when I read it a couple of days ago. In particular I was most interested in the part about the way that women rated fellow women. Obviously the data speaks for itself, so you can’t really deny the facts, but what’s obviously interesting is the “why”.

    I have two different sociological theories about this. And I’ll just point out as a disclaimer, these are just theories! I can’t claim their validity to any degree whatsoever.

    1. Latent subconscious discrimination against women by women. This may seem like a crazy idea, but hear me out. Obviously, we’ve been taught for quite some time that discriminating against women is wrong. This education, for most of us in our 30s and 40s, goes back to the beginnings of our childhood. The sort of hidden subtext of this education is that this message is targeted towards men. In other words what’s really being said is, “Men, don’t discriminate against women”. The hidden subtext for women is, “Hmmm, maybe there’s something wrong with women that require men to be taught not to discriminate against them.” I know this theory is a stretch, but it’s possible that the very act of educating men not to discriminate against women plants the seeds of doubt of their own abilities in the minds of very impressionable young girls. Hence the result that men treat the women writer’s equally, (because they’ve been taught not to discriminate), and women treat women differently, (because they have these latent doubts).

    2. Competition of Ego in an equivalent demographic. There’s no denying that egos play a huge role in the arts. Even the kindest and gentlest of writers have to have some sort of ego in order to have the guts to put their work out there. And producers aren’t any different, (actually, I’d argue that producers are worse, but that’s a discussion for a different day). But my theory on this is that people of similar backgrounds are more likely to be jealous of each other and therefore more likely to judge each other more harshly. The best analogy I can think of for this is opera singers. Think about it, Diva sopranos are always going to be catty with other sopranos, tenors with tenors etc. But a diva soprano is not going to be jealous of a tenor’s career. But she will judge every other soprano that comes along with pretty harsh criticism. In a more subtle way, this could effect the way females rate other female writers. Though I am aware that this theory should suggest that men would also rate men more harshly which isn’t supported by the data, so for sure it’s not a perfect theory.

    Anyway, there are two crazy ideas to try to explain it, but who really knows the real reasons. It is a fascinating discussion though.

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