6 Themes that Recurred in the Research
The perception that gender equality isn’t a problem
A perception exists that gender equality isn’t a problem in the performing arts. For some time now in the arts we’ve been used to having conversations about diversity based on figures (and in particular, the lack of people represented from certain groups) but gender equality is different. There is a very healthy number of women working in (as well as studying, participating in, and attending) dance, opera, and theatre. However, this volume of women can mask profound imbalances that exist in terms of what areas of the workforce women are likely to be concentrated in, what scale of resourcing and profile their work receives, and the level of seniority they may rise to.
We heard from women involved in the research that being the ones to point this out to colleagues who don’t perceive there is a problem can put them in a difficult position in the workplace or the rehearsal room. Additionally for women with diverse characteristics, a lack of understanding among their peers that they are simultaneously navigating gender inequalities and the challenges of being part of an underrepresented group (for example, not just being a person of colour working in the arts, or a woman working in the arts, but being a woman of colour working in the arts) can combine to form a set of barriers, the complexity of which are not always acknowledged or understood.
The performing arts tends to favour an ‘organic’ way of working, especially in relation to the making of artistic works and the employment of creatives. Certain protocols, structures, and procedures that are in place for employing and providing working conditions for people in most other industries (and even, to a certain extent, in the administrative side of the performing arts) aren’t necessarily there. Instead there tends to be a less structured approach (“whose work have we seen recently?” “Who are people saying is ‘hot’?” “Who’s on our radar?”) based on a perception that when it comes to creatives, talent will inevitably make itself known.
The research findings suggest however that this lack of structure – however well-intentioned or benignly-motivated it may be – is in part responsible for the pronounced imbalances that exist in terms of who is employed in creative roles, and at what scale. While the theory may be that operating free of conventional employment practices gives organisations/employers an unclouded vista from which they can identify the most exciting talent, in reality it is those people who are best adapted to thrive in this unstructured environment that will be the most visible; talent may be a secondary factor. So while employment practices used in other industries may not be directly applicable to the employment of creatives, devising and implementing structures which enable organisations to a) select creatives based on ability, not just visibility and b) monitor whether they are genuinely catering to their needs once they are in the workplace, is an important part of the equation when addressing imbalances between men and women in creative areas.
Being on the periphery
Traditionally women are less likely to be found at the centre of a power base, both within the performing arts and beyond. Today we still find a larger percentage of women than men working on the periphery. This may be driven by a desire to innovate and to be free from the constraints of an establishment that was originally largely built by men in response to the interests and needs of men. Women also have a rich history of working on the fringes to pioneer the new. But whether out of choice or out of necessity, to operate on the periphery can, we heard during the research, be exhausting. It can be financially exhausting because resources and funding tend to be scanter the further away from the epicentre of a power base an artist or company is situated. It can be emotionally wearying because being reliant on the patronage of those inside the powerbase, no matter how warm the relationship, can feel disempowering and infantilising. It can be limiting and frustrating because being situated in the powerbase opens doors and without these credentials it can be difficult to initiate certain dialogues within the industry let alone get into the room for others. The overall result can be a feeling of being locked out and undervalued. This, teamed with often quite extreme and perpetual financial instability and a lack of opportunities to grow, can make an existence on the periphery in the performing arts – whether a location of choice or not – one that demands great resilience.
The fragility of careers in the performing arts
Something the research underlined for us was how fragile careers in the performing arts are, and especially those of people in creative and/or freelance roles. To use an analogy: if a career were a piece of rope suspended between two points, in many industries that rope would be relatively thick and strong. That’s because it is made up of lots of individual strands that give it that strength, for instance, there may be a strand in place due to sick pay being there for someone to fall back on; another because there is the security of a permanent contract; another because the pay is consistently of a level that enables a person to cover their monthly outgoings. However the piece of rope representing the career of a creative working in the performing arts may be significantly less sturdy. That’s because many of the strands, such as those listed above, are unlikely to be in place (so it may instead resemble a frayed piece of rope, held together in just a few places). And if the rope becomes more depleted – through the loss of further strands – a great strain may be placed on those that remain because proportionally there are fewer of them. It won’t take the loss of too many more before a person may find their career is untenable; this is nothing to do with their talent or their commitment, just the circumstances in which they find themselves operating.
While this is the case for all but the most privileged creatives, the research suggested that women’s careers are particularly likely to be characterised by severed strands. Earning on average less than male counterparts, being more likely to be programmed on smaller and lower profile stages, more regularly encountering the biases that employers, critics, and colleagues may consciously or unconsciously hold against them and their work, taking time off for caring responsibilities and pregnancy – these are just some of the factors that may compromise the integrity of a woman creative’s career. Facing any number of these in combination (and it’s worth remembering that some women will face far more than others) may be enough that a creative will feel her career isn’t something she can, or wants to, continue with. At this point she may move into an associated field or role, one that provides her with a sturdier rope. She may remain lodged at a certain level of experience, feeling the base she’s operating on isn’t robust enough from which to take the leaps and risks often necessary to move to the next level. Or she may simply walk away from the performing arts.
We heard that there is an anticipation in the performing arts that a person’s career trajectory, or at least what is often considered a ‘successful’ career trajectory, is one that looks like an arrow ascending in a smooth upward arc, as a person advances through increasing levels of profile, resource, scale of work and responsibility. It was noted that the performing arts are very good at supporting younger people at the outset of this journey, often seeing emerging artist schemes, entry-level initiatives and apprenticeships like rocket fuel, giving someone an initial boost to get them air-bound and trusting that, if they’re good enough, their ability and commitment will provide the momentum for them to maintain this trajectory.
While some of the women involved in the research felt this was absolutely the shape their careers were taking, others did not. We found women wanting to take career gaps, shift between artforms, work in a range of ways and at a variety of scales simultaneously, rather than in a linear or exclusive manner. Some women wanted to, or only had the opportunity to, push forward later in life, feeling their personal maturity and self-assurance strengthened their work, but facing the obstacle of developmental support being concentrated on the young. Many spoke about a desire to work in collaboration or to even absent themselves from the face of a work, others of wanting to lead, then follow, before leading again and putting into practice what they learned from observing someone else in the driver’s seat. These perspectives countered the idea that reaching a pinnacle of a hierarchy equals success or is necessarily a destination in and of itself. However, we heard that the performing arts doesn’t always know how to respond to the different career trajectories that women may want or need to pursue and that, in particular, accessing resource and prestige was significantly easier for those who followed a more conventional path. This perpetuates and reaffirms an unnecessarily narrow appreciation of what a ‘successful’ career trajectory could look like and made it harder for women to access the resources and profile they needed to achieve their potential.
The world is imbalanced
The wider world, beyond the performing arts, is one that remains imbalanced in terms of how it treats men and women, girls and boys. All of us, from the time we were tiny, will have received a constant and complex stream of messages about how we should behave based on our sex, and how we should perceive others based on theirs. Some of these messages we will have spent time thinking about and either chosen to accept or reject. Others we won’t have even registered. Instead, they will be lodged in our unconscious minds in the form of unconscious bias.