Are women writers making themselves invisible?

For Women’s Equality Day, LPB is re-running this post from last year’s Dark Horse Festival, which was our most shared post of 2016.  

After the post went live, we saw a huge uptick in submissions from female writers. In fact, we ended the submission period with roughly equal submissions from male and female writers.

But this is still a problem. And it’s not just us who have encountered it. Even the Royal Court, which has achieved fantastic gender parity, is still receiving twice as many unsolicited scripts from men as it is from women

Today, no matter your background, we’d ask you to consider whether you’re being brave and bold about putting your work out there.

The world wants your stories. Make sure you’re giving us the chance to hear them.

Last week, London Playwrights Workshop put out a call for scripts for the Dark Horse Festival, a script showcase that will be taking place as part of London Writers Week 2016.

We were excited as the submissions started to roll in, but we quickly noticed something that seemed odd, and even downright disturbing.  While we were getting loads of emails from men, we were receiving hardly any from women.  In fact, a cursory count reveals that women currently make up approximately 25% of the submissions we’ve received.

We haven’t yet had an opportunity to do an analysis of our equal opportunities forms to see how we stack up on other counts (such as ethnic heritage and disability), and how these ratios compare to how these groups are represented in society.  But the gender issue is clear – if women are 50% of the population, we should be seeing scripts from them.  But it isn’t happening.

So, ladies, we have to ask – what is going on?

It’s well-documented that women playwrights are underrepresented in the industry.  As reported last year in The Guardian, in 2013 only 31% of new plays were by women.

As a female playwright myself, I’ve been frustrated and dissatisfied when I’ve seen organisations throw their hands up saying ‘women don’t submit as much’ as an excuse for not having an equal gender balance in their programming.  But now as a festival organiser, I’m experiencing firsthand how much more difficult it is to programme equally when women aren’t sending in their scripts.

There’s a brilliant community of women writers out there.

We know, because we’ve met them.

Since London Playwrights Workshop was set up, women have outnumbered men on nearly every course we have run.  (Including one unusual occasion where we had nine women in the room to only one man.)

And yet… 26% of Festival submissions?  No matter how you shake it, these numbers just don’t add up.

As a team, we’ve been asking ourselves, why this could be?  Is there something in the call that puts women off?  (Even though we made it a point to specifically encourage underrepresented voices.)  Perhaps female writers are planning to submit, but are just getting to it a bit later.

Is it possible that they are more discriminating than their male counterparts?  Or are they just more discouraged?

Although my personal and anecdotal experience contradicts the statistics (fortunately for me), it’s unquestionable that there’s gender bias in the arts.  And if I’m honest, there have been times when I’ve questioned if being a woman has held me back in my career.  There are stories I want to see onstage that aren’t there yet.  And I’ve despaired when reading stories like this Jezebel post, where a female writer received eight and a half times more responses (17 out of 50 queries) when she sent out her query under a male pseudonym.

Other people – male and female – clearly feel the same way.  There’s been an explosion of groups that have picked up the baton from individual trailblazers to promote more equality in the arts – organisations like Tonic Theatre, 17 Percent, Waking The Feminists, and The Kilroys.

There’s been a lot of attention on what theatres and producers need to do.  This is important and correct.  But it’s a strange thing to open a door, and not see people stepping forward to walk through it.  Maybe there’s also something that needs to be done from the other direction, giving women the inspiration – or the wakeup call – that part of the power is in our hands to submit early, often, and enthusiastically.

If your experience as a playwright is anything like mine, you’ve undoubtedly been disappointed in past submissions.  And you will no doubt continue to be disappointed.  This may partly be because of lingering sexism.  This may partly be down to luck.  This may partly be because this industry requires thick skin to rival a rhino to stick with the repeated rejections that will come your way.  It sucks, and there’s no point pretending otherwise.

But that doesn’t mean you should stop or slow down.  Not for one minute.  I say this for all the writers, but it seems it’s the women who particularly need to hear it.  Don’t question yourself or your talent (or at least, only question yourself in a way that’s artistically fruitful).  Send your stuff in.  This is how you get seen, and this is how you get produced.

As we watched these submissions roll in, it felt irresponsible not to say something.  We understand that writing this post may affect the makeup of the scripts we receive.  (Thus, potentially robbing us of an opportunity to collect data on how people submit without intervention.)  But we’re not scientists.  We’re trying to run a festival giving unheard voices a chance, and we can’t do that without getting the scripts.

The title of this post is purposefully provocative, because we want people to read it and think about these issues.  But we think it’s wrongheaded and unfair to lay this problem solely at the feet of women.

There is something deeply wrong at an institutional or industry level if we’re seeing this discrepancy in behavior.

Here’s what we’re doing in response:

  • We’re actively approaching people who work with new writing. We’re asking them to send us nominations that will help us reach writers we might not otherwise have come into contact with.
  • We’re extending the submission deadline to give us a bit more time to reach more writers.
  • We’re publishing the blog post you’re reading now to call attention to the issue and encourage a more diverse range of submissions.
  • Following the delivery of the festival, we’re going to take steps to look at this issue in more detail. There have been studies done about why theatres aren’t programming women writers, but maybe we need to look at the problem from the other direction as well, to figure out why women aren’t submitting?  Do we need an initiative or programmes to encourage women to send scripts in?

To our readers (and all the playwrights out there), we’d like to say:

Men – Keep up the good work!  We’re thrilled to be hearing from you.  It’s exciting to see all the scripts coming in, and we can’t wait to read them.

Women – We’ve got years of history to catch up with.  Let’s make it happen.  You’ve still got time to send your play in.  Make sure you don’t count yourself out before you even start.

A.C. Smith is Director & Co-Founder of London Playwrights Workshop, and works as a scriptwriter and songwriter in London. 

Photo credit: Kathryn via CC License

8 thoughts on “Are women writers making themselves invisible?”

  1. Research has show that it is because women feel less comfortable sending in a script that they aren’t perfectly happy with. They’re put off by prior experiences and also they feel less confident in their work. Whereas men are more likely to “take a punt”.

  2. Your blog is very much appreciated, thank you. I’d be delighted to send my plays to you, but for these reasons I feel I can’t: I live in North Norfolk (but there are trains, steam driven and otherwise); recently an agent offered to represent me (I am not published nor performed as yet, bar rehearsed readings) so that appears to rule me out as well. Many opportunities appear to be looking for ‘young’ (again, not me) writers, rather than ‘new’ ones. It has honestly never occurred to me that the work is truly judged by the author’s gender; rather by its merit. Perhaps I am naive in this and should change my name to see if it makes any difference!? We all experience rejection of course, but in this past year I’ve been rejected because the work has been ‘too complete and has already found its voice’, which was rather baffling. Subject matter and commercial viability often seem to rule each other out when it comes to competitions too. My most recent play has a cast of four women and is a shocking depiction of true events, in One Act. Another, a light comedy, has a cast of 5f and 3m, in Two Acts. Another is an adaptation of a novel from 1916 which is totally relevant this year, but as as adaptation, is ruled out. How to end this post? I’ll just say that I continue to write what I’d like to see on stage and hope for the best!

    1. Hi Joy, it sounds like you’ve received quite a bit of conflicting feedback! We’ve heard from a number of writers that they feel shut out by schemes aimed at young people. A tricky one, because it’s good to support young people who may be less empowered in making their own path, but it’s undeniable that many writers come into their own as they gain more life experience and it would be nice to see people supported at any age. For that reason, our workshops never have an age limit, and it’s been wonderful seeing people of many ages and backgrounds coming together. And for what it’s worth, I can’t think of a better strategy than the one you’re adopting: “continue to write what I’d like to see onstage and hope for the best!” Congratulations on the success you’ve already achieved, and hope more good things continue to come your way.

  3. I’m a female writer but find that most of the competitions out there tend to be very specific – i.e, the material I write isn’t what they want. I write off the wall comedies and farces, usually involving a dead body or two which are very popular and produced mostly in the community theatre forum. My stuff just doesn’t fit with what most playwriting submissions call for – I’m not part of any ethnic minority, I don’t write about deep subjects such as bullying, discrimation, or political subjects or even the human condition. So I don’t bother to submit. But if you want a play about an alien travelling to outer space via the local loo, I’m your gal.

  4. We had the same experience when we started running “Whoop ‘n’ Wail Represents…”. We found the vast majority of submissions came from men, however a lot of these did not fit the brief particularly well. The last call out was more even, perhaps because we gave a longer submission window. If you are doing more work around this we’d love to collaborate?

    Ali & Debs
    Whoop ‘n’ Wail Theatre Company
    http://www.whoopnwail.com

    1. Really interesting – thanks for sharing this experience. Would be wonderful to continue the conversation in the future!

  5. Very interesting. At Female Arts magazine we’ve been advocating for gender equality in the arts for 5 years and because of gender disparity we focus our reporting on female led drama and events.
    We also produce new writing performances, run free playwrighting workshops for women and co-produced a new playwrighting award for women in March (see Red Women Theatre Awards).
    I agree with Whoop n Wail I think playwrights need more time to submit – particularly a full length script (6 weeks would be a reasonable amount of time to get the word out). I had one, it is rare to see a call out like yours for full length so please keep us informed on twitter @femalearts
    Best wishes for the festival
    Wendy
    Female Arts http://www.femalearts.com

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