Gender equality – visibility is not power

Published: 10 October 2021
Reporter: Sandra Giorgetti

50 Women In Theatre (published by Supernova Books)

The fight for gender equality in the theatre industry is far from over and it's tougher than ever.

This is the message coming loud and clear from the panel of speakers at the launch of 50 Women in Theatre, a new book that chronicles post-war female pioneers in the industry.

The panel was made up of four contributors to the book—lighting designer Paule Constable, artistic director of New Earth Kumiko Mendl, Leeds 2023 creative director and CEO Kully Thiarai and WOW Festival's founder and director Jude Kelly—and chaired by a fifth, historian, curator and writer Dr Susan Croft.

Whilst they had some positive things to say about new networks that emerged as a result of the pandemic, the overall picture painted is a bleak one where women are forced into competition against each other in a landscape littered with systematic prejudice, patriarchy and misogyny.

There was condemnation for organisations who think it is enough to have equality policies but whose structure and ethos cause them not to be implemented. Leadership must be called out where it is seen to not take harassment and gender issues seriously.

Arts Council England also came in for further criticism for the damage done by the underlying assumption in its approach that its work is done in relation to gender equality.

Whilst there are an increasing number of women in theatre holding creative roles, Kelly said that "power and visibility are not the same thing", going on to add that "1% of all venture capital goes to all-women organisations—that’s what society thinks about women".

There has been much talk of the pandemic giving certain industries, including theatre, the opportunity to come back better as they recover post-COVID, but there are no easy answers.

There was a call for industry unions to come together and work collectively on the issues. Kelly said there is much work to be done to create a new canon of classics that do not reinforce old ways of thinking, with Thiarai saying that the nature of the current client is an opportunity for disruptive thinking and taking on new values.

"Be curious," Thiarai added, "be questioning, be brave; collectively we can make change".

50 Women In Theatre is published by Supernova Books, an independent publishing company, producing a series of works about women of achievement. It is edited by award-winning playwright and publisher and co-founder of The Women’s Theatre Workshop Cheryl Robson.