In one of last week's features, A plague on whose House?, I wrote about the reaction to the setting up of the Government's Cultural Renewal Taskforce.

Amongst those who responded to the creation of the taskforce by writing to Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, was Lord Gilbert of Panteg, on behalf of The House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee, which he chairs.

Amongst the media articles, there was reporting of much discontent about the lack of representation from the likes of the publishing industry, the Local Government Association, the music industry and the under 40s, and there was also a group of sixty BAME creatives who put their names to a letter calling on the minister to consult with BAME leaders.

This week, Dowden received a further letter, this one from campaigning group, the December Group, a cohort of leading women from the world of theatre.

An enduring legacy of centuries-long male dominance in the industry means that the battle for gender equality is still being fought on macro and micro scales, on both sides of the curtain.

The December Group letter cites research that shows a gender equal team will more likely provide a gender-balanced outcome, and calls on Dowden as chair of the cultural renewal taskforce to use a “gender lens” when assessing their proposals to safeguard gender equality.

I am beginning to see a possible pattern emerging: in my A plague on whose House? piece I said, "in the end, Dowden may be condemned out of his own mouth". Here I am moved to say that Dowden is destined to fail, hoisted with his own petard.

It goes without saying that I hope he doesn’t, but he has diminished his chances of success by having a 6 men to 3 women ratio on the taskforce, compounded by having both seats at the high table occupied by men: Dowden as mentioned as taskforce chair and former publisher and millionaire entrepreneur Neil Mendoza as commissioner for cultural recovery and renewal.

The signatories of the letter—amongst them Maureen Beattie, president of Equity, Sue Parrish, artistic director Sphinx Theatre, Polly Kemp, co-founder of ERA 50:50, Brigid Larmour, artistic director Watford Palace Theatre, Jennifer Tuckett, director of University Women in the Arts, Dr Julia Pascal, writer, director, and the first female director at the National Theatre, and Chloe Todd Fordham, Bruntwood Prize-winning playwright—doubtless await Dowden's response.

I fear the wait for a gender-balanced industry will take rather longer.

The December Group letter reads:

Dear Oliver Dowden,

Over the last 2 months, we have been looking at the question of how to rebuild the arts post-coronavirus, from the perspective of women’s equality. Our concern is that gender inequality will increase in straitened, risk-averse conditions.

Our research shows that one reason less work by women is programmed is that women are sometimes viewed (incorrectly) as more of a box-office risk. This aligns with evidence in Sphinx Theatre’s year-long research project on Women in Theatre, conducted with Jennifer Tuckett at the University of Cambridge last year, including quotes from NPO Artistic Directors:

“There isn’t enough money to make exciting commissions happen and there is pressure on the bottom line to deliver sure fire winners, which often means extant texts, which often means male written.”

“I would say that managing risk is a challenge for every theatre. There are things that I know in the wider sphere wouldn’t be a risk, but here they would be. And that often is to do with contemporary new work that’s not necessarily of a known quality”.

“The challenge is we need a play that’s recognizable, that we can get an audience in with... and the repertoire’s dominated by men. So it’s how you change that.”

We will be sending you the Report of our recent research, and from the major Women in Theatre Forum (partners including The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, Equity, ERA 50:50, University Women in the Arts, Sphinx Theatre, Black Womxn in Theatre, Stage Directors UK).

We are writing to flag up this issue now, however, as we notice that your taskforce has only 3 women out of the 9 task force members (33%). Our research from Australia has shown that a gender-equal team is more likely to consider all genders’ needs.

We also notice that 0% of the leadership is female, as both yourself, as Chair of the taskforce, and the newly appointed Commissioner for Cultural Recovery and Renewal are male.

For all these reasons, we ask that you use a ‘gender lens’ to make and review all your decisions.

We will be sending you our Report within the next few weeks. We ask you and your taskforce to reflect, and act, on its findings, as you consider how best to rebuild the arts post-coronavirus.

We hope you will let us know what measures will be put in place to ensure gender equality.

Best wishes,

Maureen Beattie OBE, President of Equity; Sue Parrish, Artistic Director, Sphinx Theatre; Polly Kemp, Co-founder, ERA 50: 50; Brigid Larmour, Artistic Director, Watford Palace Theatre; Jennifer Tuckett, Director, University Women in the Arts; Dr Julia Pascal, writer, director, academic and the first female director at the National Theatre at the South Bank; Chloe Todd Fordham, playwright, dramaturg and the former Literary Manager at Graeae Theatre Company; On behalf of the December Group