You are far from alone in being concerned about your future as a female creative. Like everyone else I’m delighted to see how much female-led work is available to watch online over the next month including the mighty Emilia, Athena Stevens’ Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels, and much, much more. But this doesn’t necessarily reflect the true picture of gender equality in British theatre. As Great Aunt Cecily always says, International Women’s Day is a lovely thing but what is she supposed to do for the other 364 days of the year? Sit quietly and shut up like a good girl?
We have been good girls for too long in theatre and, baby, we’ve still got a long way to go to achieve gender parity despite some improvements over the last 30 years. It has sometimes felt like two steps forwards and one step back, as much of the pioneering work by Tonic demonstrates. Late last year Equity called upon ACE to reconsider its Let’s Create strategy for its failure to acknowledge gender inequalities in the arts.
The pandemic is not going to help. There have been several reports suggesting that gender inequality is likely to increase post-pandemic. A survey by Parents and Carers in the Performing Arts (PIPA) found that female arts workers were doing far more childcare during the pandemic (reflective of society more widely). Many women creatives are self-employed freelancers and their inability to access the SEISS scheme, combined with reduced opportunities, means many are doubtful about staying working in the arts. The PIPA survey found that only a third of women arts workers said they were certain to stay in the sector. That would be a considerable haemorrhage of female talent, expertise and experience and could have an impact for many years to come. The kind of unconscious bias that exists was demonstrated by the government’s Cultural Renewal Taskforce: men made up two-thirds of the group.
Of course, it’s not just women theatre-workers who are worst hit by the pandemic. It applies to all marginalised groups, including artists of colour and disabled and working-class artists. It’s all the more reason why the continued push to achieve gender parity must stand shoulder to shoulder with other marginalised groups. We are always stronger and have more clout when working together.
Do I want to see more women leading our theatres? You bet. But not if they are all white middle class, able-bodied women. That’s why the appointments of people such as Lynette Linton at the Bush, Natalie Ibu at Northern Stage, Bryony Shanahan at the Royal Exchange in Manchester and Debbie Hannan at the Traverse in Edinburgh really matter.
So, if you can, hang on in there, Cleo. Your time may yet come, and it is going to be very interesting to see what happens as theatre does start to open up, and who does and doesn’t get the opportunities that are available, and also what and who gets programmed. Will there be a rush to the male-dominated classical canon? Will Simon Stephens find it easier to get programmed than Abi Zakarian and Tanika Gupta?
Many theatres who have made redundancies will have to recruit new roles. It will become clear whether theatres are committed to change by looking at what those roles are, how they are recruited and who gets them. Great Aunt Cecily and I will be watching, our beady eyes alight with interest.
Cover Image: Athena Stevens. Photography by Mobius Theatre.