‘We have far more power than we realise’: Challenging gender inequality in the theatre industry

Trigger Warning: Mentions sexual violence

As part of our research, we have looked at the impact of various intersecting categories including class, race and gender on the experiences of freelancers. In this blog post, we discuss some of the themes that came up in relation to gender, and some ways to move towards greater gender equality in the industry.

Gender dynamics were mentioned in many of our interviews and Creative Workshops, and three of our focus groups discussed gender dynamics specifically. The focus groups were conducted with 15 freelancers, the majority of whom were female-identifying, and consequently we focus predominantly here on the experiences of women. Participants were asked about their thoughts and experiences relating to gender within the industry, and were left to define what they included within this. During Covid 19, the enforced pause brought time to reflect on numerous aspects of the industry. National and international events, such as the murder of Sarah Everard and the following protests, were catalysts for conversations about women’s safety over the last 2 years, and were often mentioned in our research in relation to gendered inequalities.

Our research aims to document the experiences of freelancers, identifying examples of good practice to be celebrated as well as areas that could be improved. This blog explores some examples and suggestions relating to challenging gendered expectations, budgeting for greater gender equality and creating more equitable institutions. The focus groups concentrated on the thoughts and feelings of members of the industry and how their perceptions of the industry (or of inequalities in the industry) impact on their relationships to work. We also asked them to think about ways their personal experiences might inform change within the industry. These recommendations and experiences come from those discussions.

Challenging gendered expectations in theatre

When discussing gendered expectations, many of those we spoke with reported feeling that the demands on freelancers often related to their gender. For example, the women in the focus groups shared that they felt the need to present more polished work, and felt under pressure to work to a very high standard. One male writer and performer on the other hand felt that his experience was quite different: ‘when I’ve done works in progress, I think I get more slack cut to me probably by institutions and audiences than women would.’ There were also expectations that women would draw upon their personal experiences for writing and performing, where it was felt that men would be trusted with a broader range of topics. Consequently, there is more work to be done in the industry to ensure women feel supported and trusted to take risks and make mistakes, in order to nurture talent and potential regardless of gender.

‘A woman’s first play, and I’m sure it’s the same with like acting and directing and different things, if it’s not outstanding, they just sort of get a bit lost. And so I feel like there’s just not room for women to make mistakes and fail like everyone else is allowed to do.’

A recurring topic that came up with many of the freelancers we’ve spoken with has been the difficulty of saying no to work and raising concerns about working conditions due to ongoing precarity. In the gender focus groups, the gendered dimensions of this were discussed. There was a sense that there was a difficulty in saying no to or calling out inappropriate behaviour that women had often faced, including instances of harassment, grooming and assault. These were also highlighted within the #MeToo movement as happening throughout the theatre industry. Guidelines of appropriate behaviour were suggested as standard practice for production companies and institutions to try to overcome this. Clear guidelines as part of contractual agreements for staff and freelancers around behaviour, communication and physical contact could ensure that everyone knew the expectations upon them, remove ambiguity and give those in precarious positions more power to say no and challenge misconduct. 

“I think we need like, a lot of transparency in terms of like, what is appropriate behaviour going into a space or a rehearsal process. So everyone can read that and say, ‘Okay, I understand this.’ And then if something is to happen later on, there’s no sort of, I guess ambiguity about any of that. And education as well around what is safe practice and appropriate behaviour in a workplace.”

Gendered expectations also brought pressure on individuals in terms of their appearance. Ageism, sizeism, and a greater focus on looks than talent and skills, were all seen to have a particular impact on women within the industry and for performers in particular. While it is important to acknowledge that these things also impact men, a lack of roles for older women, casting calls for ‘ pretty girls’ or for a woman with a ’24 inch waist’ were problematic examples that were reported by freelancers within the focus groups. One participant shared, “I think having more like body diversity on stage would be excellent, in terms of equality for everyone. But I think, particularly, women are under a lot of aesthetic demands.” To overcome such pressures, casting needs to be more inclusive and less focused on aesthetics. Greater diversity in casting could also have a broader range of beneficial outcomes and there are a number of resources, like the Theatre Casting Toolkit from Tonic, Equity and SOLT which can support these changes. 

Freelancers we spoke with also reported that they often encountered negative perceptions of parents and carers within the industry. Women continue to shoulder a larger burden of childcare, as highlighted throughout the pandemic. Frequently, the women we spoke with in our interviews and focus groups had delayed having children or felt unable to do so due to the feared impact that it would have on their careers. Covid-19 was seen to open up the conversation around caring responsibilities. Home working, with meetings and auditions via Zoom, meant that more of the freelancers lives were visible. One actor we spoke with shared: “it’s allowed people to realise that you’re not just a person walking into a room who’s just an actor, but you’ve got so much more going on in your life.” Continuing to open up conversations surrounding caring responsibilities could help to mitigate the pressures that were felt by women in particular to avoid or hide additional responsibilities. Our participants highlighted the need to encourage more flexibility where possible in approaches to working that could improve access within the industry according to gender, but also, for instance, for disabled artists.

Budgeting for greater gender equality

Often, greater inclusion needs investment. In our conversations about gender, a number of areas were highlighted as potential ways to bring improvements for gender equality. Safety and security of all within theatre spaces should be a responsibility that is always taken seriously. Relatively recently we have seen the inclusion of intimacy coordinators within more rehearsal rooms, helping to work towards safer practices. Intimacy coordinators were praised by those we spoke with for their beneficial impact on both the quality of productions and providing a duty of care for those within them. Other (still fairly infrequent) examples of good practice included the provision of a therapist who worked with the actors, writers and directors throughout the rehearsal process when working on emotionally challenging themes. These kinds of support are beneficial for everyone on sets, but can particularly help to mitigate insecurities that are often experienced according to gender and the impacts of past trauma such as sexual assault (1 in 5 women have experienced rape or sexual assault as adults).

Beyond theatre spaces, another suggestion surrounded the need for greater investment to ensure that freelancers and staff felt secure on journeys to and from theatre spaces. One performer and director shared that she often felt unsafe when needing to travel from the theatre late at night. She suggested, ‘for me there would always be money in budgets for safe journeying to and from whatever you’re doing. Whether that’s an accessibility thing, or a safety thing.’ She had occasionally been offered this provision but in a more informal way, ‘this is in the pot if you need it. Ask us about it and it’s there for you’, but she recommended having it more formally built in to funding applications and pots. In light of high profile events, such as the murder of Sarah Everard, violence against women within public spaces gained renewed attention and such a pot of funding would recognise gendered insecurities and the additional burdens, including financial costs, that these can bring for women.

Additionally, there was praise for performances and institutions that integrated childcare for employees and freelancers. As mentioned above, these responsibilities are often disproportionately shouldered by women and provisions of childcare during meetings and rehearsals could overcome many of the challenges highlighted in relation to the difficulties faced by parents and carers. Such provision is currently extremely limited, but organisations that integrate this as a standard were praised as helping to mitigate an issue that can exacerbate gendered inequalities. 

Creating more equitable institutions

Many of our participants reiterated calls within the industry for greater diversity not only on stage but at all levels of theatre institutions and structures, including behind the scenes and on the boards. 

“I think, while a lot of that artistic director roles are being taken by women and we’re getting a lot more representative hires when it comes to people running theatres and running spaces. The people who actually run the spaces are the boards, and the boards are overwhelmingly white and male still and old, and also not even from artistic backgrounds quite a lot.”

Our participants were attentive not only to gender, but to broader problems of representation and access, including wholesale change rather than tokenism. One playwright based in Scotland said that we need to go further than a small number of predominantly white, middle class women in positions of power, stating, ‘I think we still need to keep fighting for more, as women. And particularly to get women of more diverse backgrounds into, into the arts.’ Women are often underrepresented in positions of power and certain roles within the industry, but we need to also be attentive to intersecting categories including class, race and disability.

The pandemic has been celebrated for opening conversations about the industry and ways to change and improve it. The collective enforced pause gave freelancers breathing space to reflect on numerous problems within the industry. The theatre industry is under intense pressure in terms of funding as we continue to navigate the impacts of Covid-19. However, as we reopen, the conversations that have opened up over the past two years can feed into more equitable relations within the industry. Seeing the kinds of costs suggested above as integral to plans for production budgets could help to mitigate some of the barriers that are often experienced along gendered lines, and contribute to a more inclusive and equitable industry.

At this point in the pandemic, there is a fear that the conversations over the last 2 years will have been in vain, failing to make changes as the industry treads water during an undoubtably challenging time. Some of the suggestions here are relatively simple to implement, but many are more challenging, requiring long-term commitment and continued evaluation, reflection and a fundamental change in the way we understand, and what we prioritise, within the industry. Our conversations brought so many problems to light, but also suggestions from freelancers for positive change. We hope that these will continue some of those important conversations and lead to concrete commitments that will make the industry more equitable.

What changes would you make to the industry to make it more inclusive and equitable? Let us know your thoughts.

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