Our sister company InclusIQ have been preparing e-learning for a client that looks at the the differences in how CV’s are perceived from women and ethnic minorities (if name suggests non-Anglo name) compared to men. Research has seen time and time again how much more receptive both men and women are to applications and CV’s, even research papers from male applicants. That’s why we were interested in this great article about one novelist’s experiment in sending out the same covering letter and writing sample to agents – under a ‘homme de plume’, a male name. Her astounding experience shows just how prevalent this bias remains, even when comparing the same content.
As novelist Catherine Nichols writes in her Jezebel article, ‘Homme de plume: what I learning sending my novel out under a male name’: ’I sent the six queries … Within 24 hours George had five responses—three manuscript requests and two warm rejections praising his exciting project. For contrast, under my own name (female), the same letter and pages sent 50 times had netted me a total of two manuscript requests. The responses gave me a little frisson of delight at being called “Mr.” and then I got mad. Three manuscript requests on a Saturday, not even during business hours! The judgments about my work that had seemed as solid as the walls of my house had turned out to be meaningless. My novel wasn’t the problem, it was me—Catherine. I wanted to know more of how the Georges of the world live, so I sent more. Total data: George sent out 50 queries, and had his manuscript requested 17 times. He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book. Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25.’
Nichols had already written a previous novel, one which was praised by her agent, but didn’t get an offer of representation – and received non-specific feedback on how she should ‘keep trying.’ As Nichols explained: ‘Being rejected is par for the writer’s course. But what chilled me was the possibility that it was not a surface problem but an astigmatism in my understanding of human nature—that I’d written something better but somehow less meaningful, that I could make nice sentences, but what I think people do is not what people do. …The problem reached into every part of my mind—not only that I had written the wrong book, but that I was the wrong person….Most of the agents only heard from one or the other of us, but I did overlap a little. One who sent me a form rejection as Catherine not only wanted to read George’s book, but instead of rejecting it asked if he could send it along to a more senior agent. Even George’s rejections were polite and warm on a level that would have meant everything to me, except that they weren’t to the real me. George’s work was “clever,” it’s “well-constructed” and “exciting.” No one mentioned his sentences being lyrical or whether his main characters were feisty (which was a common refrain given to Catherine).’
Historically lots of women have published under male names, such as George Sand, in order to get published at all. However, considering women make up a majority of readers and we have great examples of successful female authors, we’d like to think we are past this in 2015. No doubt Nichols did as well. It raises the question of which writers will we never hear from and who gets overhyped.
So why focus on Nichols experience? Because as a writer she could conduct a personal ‘blind’ experiment, sending out the same exact work as both a male and female writer to see if there was any difference – and she was dismayed to see what an astounding difference it made. For women who work in an office, lab or other face to face setting, there is no possibility of this kind of controlled experiment. We simply have to give the world the benefit of the doubt and assume we are treated equally to men despite the evidence around us suggesting we are not. Instead we have to trust we are being promoted or rejected based on quality of our work; a trust it would seem based on Nichols experience may be optimistic and misplaced.