@Robinne Weiss alerted me to this article and I am glad The Debriefer touched upon this with @AgentPete's own experience.
Interesting that it was mainly women who suggested without question that an author's name should be neutered ...I'm not surprised with that. I have worked under female team leaders and male team leaders and in almost every occasion I have experienced less versatility, harder lines adopted by the females than the more flexible approach my male team leaders generally led by. In my own opinion, it's more to do with perception of what society expects a 'good' or acceptable approach should be like.
In the case of agents I think using a male name or neutral one maximises the chances for their client. Since that is what agents want for their authors that's what they will be steered by. Same with team leaders, I think...not scientific and definitely worth exploring scientifically.
In my own observation...I find that languages are interesting especially those who allocate a feminine and masculine association with nouns/adjectives like French and Arabic. But what I find interesting is that in Arabic (am not versed in french so won't comment there) everything is by default masculine if there is an impossibility of any other type of situation. For example the word for 'pregnant' is masculine even though the female is the one who is pregnant. Yet because it is impossible for there to be a male pregnancy, ignoring special cases!, by default the word is masculine.
If we start to think that masculine and feminine are NOT always associated with the male and female concept then we can understand that males can be effeminate and females can display masculine behaviour broadening our minds.
How does this relate to the authors using male names? I am crudely constructing this for now....but if the same parallels are applied then perhaps the agents are merely using masculine names rather than male names which is a subtle difference because perhaps...maybe....just maybe mind......society's psyche leans towards to masculinity by default.
Some very interesting thoughts. I suppose from my point of view, I'm not at all surprised that there is sexism in publishing. I have encountered sexism in nearly every other aspect of life, so why should it be absent in publishing? The question is what can/should an author do about it? Is it dishonest to masculinise or neuter your name in order to take advantage of a gender bias? By doing so, are we sanctioning the sexism? Or are we merely playing the game, as it were--doing what needs to be done to get our work out there? I don't know the answer. I don't think there is one right answer. For me, personally, it would be easy to neuter my name just by dropping the feminine ending...but I'm not sure I could do that. For me it would feel like sanctioning the sexism. When I talk to my lovable but extremely sexist farmer neighbors, I don't try to hide my gender, rather I try to show them that I can be just as ribald, sharp, and knowledgeable about current soil conditions as they are. When the wimpy shop assistant at the local ag supply store asks, "You sure you don't need help with that?" I respond by tossing the 40kg sack of grain over my shoulder, smiling, and saying, "no thanks. I've got it." Hiding my gender isn't an option in person (well, I could probably manage, but what a pain!), why should I do it in print? For me, the pleasure lies in blowing the stereotype out of the water. Of course, maybe if I get really desperate to publish...
I suspect there is a tacit acceptance of the status quo at work here. None of the female publishers mentioned in the example I cited in the show could be termed overtly sexist, quite the opposite really. However, all of them acquiesced to the assumption that someone further down the publishing chain would find a recognizably female author name a turn-off. IE it really came down to business versus principles.
Until someone is prepared to challenge some of the shibboleths we hold inviolable, nothing will change.