Fight for gender equality moves from theatre to music

When it comes to ‘gender mainstreaming’, we can learn something from Vienna city hall

Isabelle O’Connell: a hasty late edition to Composing the Island

Isabelle O’Connell: a hasty late edition to Composing the Island

 

Enda Kenny has marshalled real political heft in support of Creative Ireland, a five-year arts development project. More importantly, the Taoiseach has acknowledged the need to put “arts and culture at the centre of public policy, in a way that, frankly, we have failed to do until now”.

Like Kenny’s brave 2011 statement confronting the reality of the Catholic Church and child sexual abuse in Ireland, those are words that cannot be unsaid.

Some years ago I had a startling encounter with an unthinkable situation I had known about for most of my life. I was looking up a review in the archives of pianist John O’Conor’s 1968 coming-out recital. On the same page of The Irish Times was a report by Fergus Pyle on a debriefing between Unionist MPs at Stormont and those Stormont ministers who had held talks with prime minister Harold Wilson.

Two paragraphs leapt out at me.

“The firm impression of many members is that some concessions to Westminster are to be expected – probably not in the area of universal adult franchise where Mr Wilson’s concern was most marked but as an interim gesture, possibly in the field of house allocation and the appointment of an ombudsman.”

And later: “There was a feeling that an indication of the [NI] Government’s reforming intentions might meet Westminster’s most immediate requirements if it was associated with an assurance that Stormont would, in principle, show that a favourable attitude would be taken to one man, one vote sometime in the not distant future.”

Political bargaining over voting rights still has an awful stink to it, but the battlefronts are now in different places. Think of the issues that led to the Waking the Feminists campaign (stimulated by the Abbey Theatre’s 2016 Waking the Nation programme) and Composing the Feminists (a response to September’s Composing the Island Festival).

The debate over gender balance may not be of the same scale in music as in theatre, but the issue, surely, is that they were there at all. 

Ireland of composers

“Composing the Island”, a celebration of the last century of music in Ireland, was a joint venture between RTÉ and the National Concert Hall. And although the idea originated with the broadcaster, the public profile and major web presence were mainly the remit of the NCH.

Extraordinary as it may seem, the festival web page did not mention a single female composer. There were a number of programmes without any work by a woman. And none of the commissions associated with the festival were by a woman. In July, the National Concert Hall’s director, Simon Taylor, added an extra all-female programme of piano music performed by Isabelle O’Connell.

The Composing the Feminists campaign has also raised gender issues that have not been widely aired. Why did men account for such a high proportion of the longer works in the festival and of the works for large forces? Length and size matter a lot when it comes to the collection of royalties. 

The real question, of course, is how did the imbalances come about in the first place? Or, more correctly, how is it that they were allowed to come about?

Well, think of the kerfuffle that arose recently when Patrick O’Donovan, Minister of State for Tourism and Sport, suggested funding cuts for State-supported sports organisations that fail to give at least 30 per cent of their board positions to women. Then think of the change wrought by similar proposals that affected public funding for political parties at the last general election. Representation of women in the Dáil rose from the 2011 level of 15 per cent to just over 22 per cent. 

There is no mention of a gender policy on the NCH website. Perhaps all that is needed is such a policy, so that everyone can know what the organisation’s concerns and goals are. 

Gender in Vienna

A couple of months ago I was researching the level of municipal cultural spending in the city of Vienna and came across a section on “gender mainstreaming”. Vienna even has a Department of Gender Mainstreaming, with full contact details. The website has a section on art and culture, suggesting “ways to implement gender mainstreaming”.

“Women frequently take the back seat in art and culture,” it points out. “Freelance artists and their works and achievements are often measured by their success and the way they are represented. It is generally assumed that ‘good’ works will find their own way.

Yet art and culture are still dominated by men, while women as artists and decision makers in cultural institutions, with a few exceptions only, are either invisible or take the back seat.”

The last paragraph deals with quotas for decision-making bodies. It reiterates that “an artist’s income is largely derived from public funding, grants and prizes. The latter are important for their career and their biography. The committees or juries responsible for deciding on who they are awarded to must be made up of women and men in equal numbers who in turn need to be made aware of the gender-equality aspects entailed.”

Should change in this area remain unthinkable? Need I say more?

mdervan@irishtimes.com

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