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What Lies Beneath: The Truth About Unconscious Bias

Do men write better plays than women? We think we know that’s not true. So why does the disparity persist?

“In the theatre, we often think of diversity as ‘important’ in a civic sense, but optional in an artistic sense. But without diversity, theatre doesn’t exist. If there’s only one point of view, there is no drama. If nobody shows up who has different information, or different social position, or a different agenda or whatever, to challenge that single point of view, you know, that’s cool—but it’s not a play. For drama, you need different stories of the world clashing into each other. Drama only occurs when people come up against situations that are outside of themselves, and are changed by them. That’s what lights us up when we go to the theatre.” 
—Lisa Kron

For a while now, I have struggled to understand the disconnect between our conversations about diversity in the American theatre and our slow and equivocal progress. I have seen hundreds of panel discussions, speeches, articles, and initiatives calling attention to the necessity of producing more plays by women and people of color. As the literary manager of Center Theatre Group, my play reading stack offers annual proof of the abundance of gifted female, transgender, and nonwhite playwrights writing today. And yet, year after year, season announcement after season announcement, we fail to close the gap between the diversity on our stages and the diversity of the cities we serve.

I’m confused by this failure, because I know the people in this field, and I believe all these conversations about equity have been sincere. I know there are no secret, shadowy rooms of avowed racists and misogynists conspiring to maintain the status quo. This is a field of curious, intelligent, passionate outsiders who share the goal of a just and inclusive theatre. And yet the people earnestly discussing the issue are somehow also the ones perpetuating it.

As a dramaturg, I take this kind of confusion as my cue to go on a research bender. I quickly came across new studies on cognition and how our minds process difference, and I started consuming all the books and articles I could find. What I learned has turned me into something of an evangelist for the concept of unconscious bias. If more people knew about this research, we would see why we are stuck in this conversational loop—and we’d also have some idea about how to break out of it.

A flood of scientific research in the last 20 years has produced new and sometimes bizarre evidence of the complexity of the human mind. Recent studies demonstrate that we are more likely to describe a stranger’s personality as warm after holding a hot beverage and more apt to pay for a cup of coffee in an honor system box if the price is listed next to a photo of human eyes rather than one of flowers.

This research has shown that unconscious thoughts play a larger role in our decisions and actions than we imagined. Nobel Prize–winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel estimated that 80–90 percent of our thinking is unconscious. Howard Ross, author of Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives, says the research suggests that Freud’s image of our conscious minds as the above-water section of an iceberg “overstates our natural capability for consciousness. Our conscious may be more like a snowball on the tip of the iceberg!”

Our unconscious minds are pattern-seeking machines: They look for repeated associations in the experiences we have and the stories we hear and turn them into rules about how the world works and what is likely to happen next. Based on these rules, our unconscious minds make hundreds of thousands of fleeting assumptions, predictions, and judgments every day. This system helps us survive and succeed, anticipate problems, and get better at what we do.

But this system also makes our unconscious minds vulnerable to bias. They are easily infected by stereotypes: Repeated exposure to such stereotypes, in the absence of enough counter examples, prompts our unconscious minds to record these stereotypes for future use, without regard for accuracy or predictive value. For example, when asked to assess the competence and leadership of a talkative CEO, study participants rated the CEO above average when described as male and below average when described as female. In another study, when an otherwise identical résumé was sent out with either a traditionally white name or traditionally black name, the résumé with the white name received 50 percent more calls.

None of us is immune. “Bias is as natural to the human condition as breathing,” Ross says. And, crucially, research has shown that we sometimes bear unconscious bias against our will, and even when it conflicts with our conscious values and beliefs. Indeed, researchers have found unconscious bias in people who believe deeply in racial and gender equality.

People like me. I am a cofounder of the Kilroys and a committed lifelong feminist. I was the girl in fifth grade who raised her hand to ask why women weren’t allowed to sign the Declaration of Independence. But, several years ago, I took several tests measuring unconscious bias (called Implicit Association Tests, or IATs) on Harvard’s Project Implicit website (https://implicit.harvard.edu). I did fine on some, somehow escaping unconscious racial bias (thank you, Oakland schools!), but badly on others. My results from the gender-career IAT stung: The test showed that I unconsciously associate male with career and female with family. Eighty percent of women do. Our culture has been steeped in images of women as caretakers and nurturers and men as ambitious professionals for centuries. These narratives have wrapped themselves around our unconscious minds, and it will take some time to completely disentangle ourselves from them.

We are not doomed to act on our unconscious biases, but we can’t overcome them unless we know what they look like and where they live. With that in mind, I’ll share some specific forms of unconscious bias that researchers have found, and which I suspect apply to our field.

Let’s start with the most basic—and painful—one: Unconscious bias against an artist can cause us to think less of their work and prime us to look for errors. Multiple studies have demonstrated that people often judge work more harshly when they think the author is a woman or person of color. In one study, grad students asked to evaluate the quality of otherwise identical conference proposal abstracts gave it a better rating if the author’s name was male than if it was female. In another, lawyers were asked to rate a research memo by a junior associate. Those who thought the author was white gave it a 20 percent higher score than those who thought he was African American. The lawyers also caught twice as many spelling errors if they thought the author was black. Are we more sensitive to the shortcomings of plays by women and people of color? Are we more likely to see talent, craft, and intentionality in work by white male playwrights?

Researchers have found that we are more reluctant to use words like “genius” and “brilliant” to characterize women than men. For example, a study of millions of RatemyProfessors.com reviews found both adjectives were applied far more often to male professors than female ones. Accordingly, research suggests that fields that value brilliance and genius—fields like theatre, perhaps—tend to hire more white men. In a study of 1,800 professors, Princeton University philosopher Sarah-Jane Leslie found that the academic disciplines that most prized innate genius were the least likely to employ women and African Americans.

In a related dynamic, men tend to be hired on the basis of potential and women on proven performance. A study discovered that, though female and male directors at Sundance Film Festival win awards at equal rates, after the festival, major studios frequently offered contracts to male but not female winners. At this year’s Dramatists Guild National Conference, Lisa Kron urged artistic directors to try this thought experiment: “Think about plays you’ve produced by younger male playwrights. What excited you about those plays? About those writers? What worried you? Now go through the list of female playwrights you’ve produced and ask yourself the same questions.” An artistic director friend of hers recently realized that he had, unintentionally, been judging male and female playwrights by different standards: “What had seemed like exciting potential to him in male writers felt like a concerning lack of experience in female writers.”

 

The final example I’ll give is a common but complicated one, and could be the subject of its own article. Implicit biases can lead us to interpret plays by female and nonwhite writers through the lens of our stereotypes, which can impair our ability to see them accurately. Scientists who study cognition have found that stereotypes prime us with expectations and assumptions, and then confirmation bias motivates us to focus on anything that confirms our preconceptions and overlook the rest.

There are regular examples of this dynamic in theatre. For example, in a recent Boston Globe review of A. Rey Pamatmat’s Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them at Company One Theatre, critic Jeffrey Gantz wished the Filipino-American characters’ “culture [was] on display” and complained “it seems odd they have no racial problems at school.” Gantz assumed the playwright’s identity was the most relevant context for his work and looked so hard for the play he expected that he missed the one actually before him. Playwright Mike Lew calls this phenomenon the “anthropological gaze,” noting that it can be a serious obstacle to production.  “How do you distinguish the singularity of your voice when your voice isn’t really being heard to begin with?” Lew asks.

These are not the only examples of bias, by any means, but I hope these few examples help us begin to recognize and interrogate the ways bias can shape our judgments about plays and artists. Ross calls this awareness the most “fundamental stage” in the process of change. “As long as we find a way not to act on them, our biases need not be a matter of grave importance or seriousness,” he writes. “Being able to simply witness those biases, to put that proverbial flashlight on them, gives us the ability to transcend them.”

Research suggests that our minds are malleable, and although it takes time and effort to overcome unconscious bias, it is possible. Here are some strategies:

1. Surrender the illusion that you are objective. Researchers find that this illusion actually increases the likelihood of exhibiting bias. Accept, without judgment, that bias is embedded in the basic function of your mind.

2. Shine a light on your own biases. Use your conscious, analytical mind to examine your automatic assumptions and determine whether they are shaped by biases in our culture or gaps in your own experience.

3. Use data whenever possible. It is hard to see your own biases, and we are motivated to believe they don’t exist. Every theatre in America should keep statistics about the inclusiveness of their seasons—we tend to overestimate diversity without cold, hard numbers to guide us.

4. Slow down and focus. Employ a “strict scrutiny” standard when making decisions that might be impacted by bias. Unconscious bias is strongest when we work quickly or are distracted. Do not delegate these tasks to your unconscious mind.

5. Notice the distinctiveness of the people you encounter. Challenge the implicit narratives in your mind and take note when they prove insufficient to the richness and complexity of the world around you.

6. Defer judgment for as long as possible. Instead, when evaluating plays, focus on the uniqueness of the work and its singular perspective.

7. Recognize stereotypes. Consider whether your assumptions about a play or its characters might be colored by unconscious stereotypes, and test those stereotypes against the work in front of you.

8. Evaluate plays according to the artist’s intent. Be rigorous about looking for that intent in the work itself and guard against stereotyped assumptions you may have brought to the play.

9. Read widely and diversely. Seek out and listen to the perspectives of people you know you harbor biases against.

10. Seek out individuality. Make a practice of seeking out images of women and people of color that defy stereotype. One of the lead researchers at Harvard’s Project Implicit has a screensaver of counterstereotypic images—her favorite is of a construction worker at lunch, breastfeeding her infant. She knows from her research that simply seeing a wider range of images of humanity can be a powerful influence.

 

I’m struck by how often the word “narrative” comes up in books and articles I’ve read. Unconscious bias exists because we are shown the same narrow view of humanity again and again and again. As storytellers, we have a profound power in our hands; we are peopling the imaginations of our neighbors. When our seasons center the world on the same people who have always been centerstage, we are complicit in the larger cultural message that those people are more important, interesting, and complex. But if we take full advantage of the abundance of gifted writers right in front of us—the unprecedented range and diversity of playwrights working today—we have the power to reshape those narratives. We can help create a generation primed to view the people around them as they actually exist in all of their complications and potential, in all their humanity.

Joy Meads is the literary manager at Center Theatre Group and a member of the Kilroys.

  • http://swimponypa.wordpress.com/ Swim Pony Performing Arts

    Thanks for the great article. Another similar study talking about this issue in the arts drawing from research on gender bias inherent in selection of women for roles in the sciences here: http://swimpony.org/2013/10/14/the-ballad-of-john-and-jen/

  • http://j.nelsonleith.com/ John Leith

    I’m not convinced that the science that’s cited here is as solid as it might seem at first blush (the IAT is particularly problematic) but that 10-point list is pure gold and could be used to combat bias in any workplace. In fact, I think I’m going to print it out, with the proper citation to Joy Meads of course, and post it on the wall of my office.

  • Gog Magog

    I guess I am more concerned about the sameness in the taste or artistic directors for what they consider “good theater” than I am whether there is an issue with diversity. Time and again, I see what comes out of New York or prominent regional theaters and it is generally underwhelming, non-adventurous, and bland. When a theatrical work comes out that gets high praise for its being “edgy,” one can usually be assured that it will be the same tame fare theaters usually offer, as if artistic directors and dramaturgs’ sense of where the boundaries are that are being crossed is frozen in the late 1800’s.

  • Jasper Taylor

    Great and important piece. Thank you for publishing this, AT!!

  • Saramis

    Regarding #1, for sure — I had an ex insist that men really ARE just better writers than women. I suggested that maybe, since he is a man, he feels a connection to the works of male playwrights just like maybe I feel a connection to those of women, and that a preference doesn’t necessarily make them objectively BETTER writers, but this was a silly thought as far as he was concerned. He was smart and therefore the things he likes were objectively the best things.

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