All’s Fair in Love and Edinburgh Reviews

There’s no shortage of anecdotal evidence of sexism in comedy. The Howl Sanctuary‘s Jay Jay crunched the numbers of Edinburgh star ratings and found out that the truth is more nuanced. Here’s what she discovered.

During August, I’ve lurked like a benign spectre on various Facebook groups for stand-up performers and have seen the same themes crop up again and again: gender bias. This publication only awards one star to women. That reviewer only rates men. This reviewer reckons a woman discussing her fertility is somehow too niche for public consumption: two stars.

Of course, it would be unnatural if there weren’t a small punnet of sour grapes attached to some of these remarks; a comic probably won’t ask a reviewer to their wedding if they’ve said their show’s a hackneyed pile of garbage.

But individual gripes aside, I wanted to know if there was any truth in the rumours of gender bias in the awarding of stars, so I decided to crunch the numbers to ascertain if bias really existed, and who the worst offenders were. 

In all, I looked at 1530 stand-up reviews across 12 publications: Fest, The Skinny, Broadway Baby, Ed Fest Mag, The Wee Review, The Scotsman, One 4 Review, Chortle, Fringe Guru, The List, The Telegraph and The Guardian. Although the latter two are small, their ratings mean a lot so they were worthy of inclusion.

Averaging across these 12 publications, there appears to be little gender bias with the exception that men are more likely to be awarded a one star rating (which is a little misleading as the sample size of one star reviews is tiny – many publications don’t give any at all). But although the overall picture looked benign, once I began to break down star ratings at each publication, a different picture emerged.

There are more male than female comics performing, so you can’t compare like for like. In order to ascertain how fairly stars were awarded to men and women, I calculated the average gender split reviewed by each publication, and then worked out what percentage of each type of star rating were awarded to men and women.

So, as an example, The Wee Review rates 66% men and 34% women overall, yet awarded 93% of their five-star ratings to men and the remaining seven percent to women. This would suggest some element of bias. When I spoke to the editor, Robert Peacock, he explained their reviewing process. Reviewers get a certain amount of ‘Editor’s Picks’ shows allocated to them to see, with a reasonable gender breakdown of 54 male comics (59%), 38 female comics (41%). After that reviewers choose their own shows, and it is here that Robert suggests ‘once everyone had done their requisite Editors’ Picks, they went for familiar territory. For some of our male writers, this may have been male stand-up comics. I propose that if this approach results in only one five star review awarded to a woman out of 14 five star ratings, the system by which shows are allocated for review would benefit from an overhaul.

In the interest of fairness it’s worth mentioning that the Wee Review did not replicate the same level of bias across all star categories – for instance, the four star awards were tipped in favour of women, and the three star awards were fairly even. But as fringe regulars Kate Smurthwaite and Athena Kugblenu both pointed out to me  – it’s the high reviews that market your production and get the punters through the door. Five star ratings matter.

The Scotsman was the only one publication that indicated bias towards men across the board, awarding them far more five star and four star ratings and reserving the one star and two stars for the women. When I spoke to their arts editor for comment, he simply informed me that his reviewers were all unbiased and highly experienced thank-you-very-much and assured me my remarks would be borne in mind at next year’s festival. So far, so revolutionary.

By contrast, I spoke to Ben Venables, comedy editor at The Skinny, which is more favourable to women than the average for each star-rating category. Ben explained there was a clear ethos in place about criteria for reviewing in general: schedules were assigned in advance and at random so reviewers could not choose ‘favourite’ performers – at many other publications it’s commonplace for people to choose who they review. It’s worth mentioning that The Skinny awards very few stars out the extreme ends of the spectrum which can have the effect of disguising bias because the two, three and four star categories become larger. Hearteningly, Ben showed an awareness that even where they were getting it right on areas like gender, their reviewers still tended to meet a certain age, race and class demographic. He recognised the imperfections in their system, which is at least a start. He also told me quite frankly that they vet potential reviewers. Anyone with the attitude that ‘women aren’t funny’ never gets through the door.

There are many variables when analysing such data, and I have to say at the end of the project I was left feeling I had more questions than answers. That’s not to say that there’s no value to such analysis; certainly a fuller picture could be given by including an analysis of the data from preceding years. There’s definitely also scope for a more qualitative examination of ratings criteria across different publications, gender breakdown of reviewing staff and perhaps even a sociolinguistic examination of gendered language in reviews. The work goes on.

Jay’s original analysis and the full data set are available here!