Get­ting the mea­sure of gen­der in­equal­ity in Ir­ish theatre

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS -

Artists are not wid­get-mak­ers; the cre­ative process dif­fers fun­da­men­tally from trac­tor pro­duc­tion. That’s why ac­tiv­i­ties such as col­lect­ing data, cal­cu­lat­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity and set­ting out­put tar­gets are of­ten seen as in­com­pat­i­ble with artis­tic ex­pres­sion. For this rea­son, State fund­ing agen­cies are of­ten ac­cused of im­pos­ing in­ap­pro­pri­ate and over-of­fi­cious re­quire­ments in re­turn for their fi­nan­cial sup­port.

The re­cent con­tro­versy over pro­posed changes to the cnuas paid to Aos­dána mem­bers, for ex­am­ple, hinged on what was seen as a ham­fisted at­tempt by the Arts Coun­cil to im­pose clumsy met­rics of pro­duc­tiv­ity on writ­ers, mu­si­cians and vis­ual artists.

De­spite these dis­putes, many things can and should be mean­ing­fully mea­sured. As it hap­pens, the Arts Coun­cil is also a sig­nif­i­cant player in Gen­der Counts: An Anal­y­sis of Gen­der in Ir­ish Theatre 2006-2015, the re­port pub­lished this week by #Wak­ing The Fem­i­nists. Not only did the coun­cil fund the re­port, the 10 or­gan­i­sa­tions sur­veyed were se­lected be­cause they were the largest re­cip­i­ents of Arts Coun­cil sup­port in Ir­ish theatre.

Gen­der Counts is an im­pres­sive and scrupu­lous piece of work, although the au­thors are care­ful to ac­knowl­edge lim­i­ta­tions in its scope. The re­sults will prob­a­bly not sur­prise many peo­ple, but it is still star­tling to see em­pir­i­cal ev­i­dence of sys­tem­atic in­equal­ity laid out so starkly and com­pre­hen­sively. Some may quib­ble with in­di­vid­ual el­e­ments (the fact the Abbey em­ploys full-time staff, many of them women, in cre­ative po­si­tions is not ac­knowl­edged, for ex­am­ple), but the 10-year times­pan is large enough to re­fute any sug­ges­tion that par­tic­u­lar cir­cum­stances at cer­tain points in time sig­nif­i­cantly skewed the over­all fig­ures.

“It is now ev­i­dent, not just from anec­do­tal ac­counts but from sta­tis­ti­cal anal­y­sis, that Ir­ish theatre has a sig­nif­i­cant gen­der prob­lem,” the re­port con­cludes. “Women are poorly rep­re­sented in the ma­jor­ity of key roles in the top-funded theatre or­gan­i­sa­tions in Ire­land.”

‘‘ The higher the fund­ing an or­gan­i­sa­tion re­ceives, the lower the fe­male pres­ence in these roles

Strik­ing cor­re­la­tion

One re­mark­ably strik­ing cor­re­la­tion stands out. The big­ger the sub­ven­tion a theatre, theatre com­pany or fes­ti­val re­ceived from the Arts Coun­cil over the 10-year pe­riod, the big­ger its equal­ity prob­lem was.

“Look­ing at the first eight sam­pled or­gan­i­sa­tions, there is a gen­eral pattern of an in­verse re­la­tion­ship be­tween lev­els of fund­ing and fe­male rep­re­sen­ta­tion,” say the au­thors. “In other words, the higher the fund­ing an or­gan­i­sa­tion re­ceives, the lower the fe­male pres­ence in these roles.”

That blunt as­sess­ment raises pro­found ques­tions for the com­pa­nies in­volved: the Abbey and Gate the­atres, Dublin Theatre Fes­ti­val and Druid. As any good sci­en­tist will point out, cor­re­la­tion does not equal cau­sa­tion, but it hardly seems un­rea­son­able to draw the con­clu­sion that the higher the sta­tus of an in­sti­tu­tion, the more un­equal it has been. This fact should be borne in mind when in­ter­pret­ing some of the global re­sults, as the some­what bet­ter fig­ures for less high-pro­file com­pa­nies might lead some to un­der­es­ti­mate the scale of the chal­lenge.

To be fair, there are def­i­nite signs of change. The Abbey is now mea­sur­ing gen­der equal­ity in its pro­gramme in five-year pe­ri­ods. It has stated that, while there will be on­go­ing flex­i­bil­ity within pro­gram­ming for a given year, the artis­tic pro­gramme “will achieve gen­der bal­ance” over the course of those five years. It has also part­nered with Ol­wen Dawe, a pol­icy an­a­lyst with a spe­cific in­ter­est in gen­der equal­ity and di­ver­sity, pol­icy and ad­vo­cacy, to de­velop a di­ver­sity and equal­ity strat­egy.

Re­cently in­stalled Gate artis­tic di­rec­tor Selina Cart­mell ac­knowl­edges the theatre needs to put to­gether a sim­i­lar equal­ity pro­gramme. But she points to her own first pro­gramme as ev­i­dence the Gate is mov­ing on quickly from what she de­scribes as “pretty shock­ing” num­bers: only 8 per cent of plays at the Gate be­tween 2006 and 2015 were di­rected by women and, in six of the 10 years stud­ied, no plays at the Gate had fe­male di­rec­tors. In Cart­mell’s new 12-month sea­son, 83 per cent of the pro­duc­tions will be di­rected by women.

Low­est pro­por­tion

High­light­ing the con­tin­u­ing pri­mary po­si­tion of the role of the au­thor in Ir­ish theatre, the re­port notes over­all fe­male rep­re­sen­ta­tion among au­thors was 28 per cent, but the Gate and Abbey again had the low­est pro­por­tion of fe­male au­thors at 6 per cent and 17 per cent re­spec­tively.

Both the­atres’ mis­sion state­ments in­clude com­mit­ments to stag­ing canon­i­cal and classical work, which in­evitably has some in­flu­ence on those num­bers. While Cart­mell ac­knowl­edges that this poses par­tic­u­lar prob­lems for the Gate, she be­lieves there are more cre­ative ways to ap­proach it.

In ret­ro­spect it seems al­most bizarre that such glar­ing in­equal­i­ties did not be­come a ma­jor pub­lic is­sue ear­lier, and that it took the ex­plo­sion of anger in 2015 against the Abbey’s Ris­ing cen­te­nary pro­gramme from women work­ing in theatre for it to do so.

“We un­der­stand that the is­sue of gen­der equal­ity does not ex­ist in iso­la­tion and this study is only a small part of the nec­es­sary project work­ing to­wards a wider un­der­stand­ing of di­ver­sity and equal­ity,” the re­port con­cludes. Call­ing for a con­tin­u­a­tion of the work they started, the au­thors also rec­om­mend a com­par­a­tive anal­y­sis of the thorny is­sue of payscales, along with re­search on the ca­reer paths, in­clud­ing the role of third level ed­u­ca­tion.

Wak­ing The Fem­i­nists forms part of a broader move­ment to de­mand greater trans­parency and ac­tion on en­trenched priv­i­lege and lack of di­ver­sity in Ir­ish cul­ture; its im­pact has al­ready been seen beyond theatre in ad­just­ments in pol­icy changes an­nounced by the Ir­ish Film Board. It’s very much the start of a process that has the po­ten­tial to be truly pro­found and trans­for­ma­tive.

Hugh Line­han

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