Yes we did: Irish theatre’s gender-equality revolution

Irish theatre came out blazing this week, proving that gender equality is ‘not hard to do, if you want to’

What a difference a couple of years can make. Some top players in Irish theatre are chatting in the Lir Academy of Dramatic Art in Dublin. Anne Clarke says "there's a certain element of: just do it. Gender equality is not a hard thing to do, if you want to. This change came about because of a decision, to reverse inequality and give more opportunities to women."

Lynne Parker observes that the situation "has changed so much already. And it's still changing." Sarah Durcan says: "When we started doing this, none of us knew about unconscious bias, dignity at work policies or anything. So that language and knowledge has passed not only into the theatre sector but wider. We always said we wanted this movement to be a catalyst for change everywhere."

They – a top independent producer, Rough Magic's artistic director and a Waking The Feminists (WTF) organiser respectively – are at the Lir for the launch, by Minister of Culture Josepha Madigan, of the gender equality policies of 10 major theatres and arts organisations who have led the way in changing the way they work.

Clarke says she had tears in her eyes reading the documents that morning, thinking about what was achieved in such a short time. There was a celebratory, we-can-do-it, atmosphere. Lian Bell, a key WTF leader, is working in Donegal, but her spirit is frequently invoked.


As Irish theatre people talk, you get the sense that, far from being an intractable challenge, what you need for gender equality in an organisation is awareness of the issue, and the will to change how things are done.

From the podium director of the Lir, Loughlin Deegan, suggests Waking The Feminists “was the beginning of the end of inequality in Irish theatre, and this week’s publication was the end of the beginning”.

“We’ve talked about it enough, our consciousnesses have been sufficiently raised, we know what the problem was, we’ve identified solutions, and in launching these policies today we are committing ourselves as organisations to very concrete proposals that will guarantee that equality of opportunity for women working in Irish theatre becomes everyday.”

There’s no big stick here. The policy shifts have been enthusiastically and widely embraced and have been led by theatre companies themselves, in response to the #WakingTheFeminists movement and its research. WTF was responding to a distinctly male programme for the 2016 Waking the Nation initiative at the Abbey, and it woke a sleeping beast of its own, protesting against the lack of representation of women in theatre, the outcome of which has been real.

It’s not that theatre is worse than anywhere else for equal opportunity. As Durcan says “the statistics in theatre , even as bad as they were, are comparatively better than other industries.”

‘A product of the patriarchal system’

The dramatic improvement in women's representation at the Gate Theatre is particularly striking. In just two years the proportion of female directors increased from 8 per cent in 2006-15, to 80 per cent in 2017-18, and writers increased from 6 per cent to 33 per cent , under its new artistic director Selina Cartmell.

And this isn’t about the fallout after allegations of bullying at the Gate last November. Waking the Feminists and this process were well under way before then.

Besides, as Lynne Parker points out: “This is not a new thing. Irish theatre is a really safe space in the main, with a few egregious examples. It has been an equal place to work for years.”

Independent theatre companies such Rough Magic "grew up thinking it should be that way. And we were shocked when we found there are other ways of working." Parker recalls "such chauvinism" at the Abbey decades back. "It was a product of the patriarchal system."

So what happened over the past couple of years? Waking The Feminists commissioned research into the gender balance in Irish theatre. Gender Counts: An analysis of gender in Irish theatre 2006-15, published in June 2017, pointed to severe underrepresentation in women in all areas except costume design. The study, led by Dr Brenda Donohue, Dr Ciara Conway and Dr Tanya Dean, concluded it was "now evident, not just from anecdotal accounts but from statistical analysis, that Irish theatre has a significant gender problem".

Initially 28 leaders and board members from Irish theatre, along with Lucy Kerbel of Tonic Theatre, who led change in British theatre, decided on what Everyman Cork artistic director Julie Kelleher, describing the process onstage this week, called "a customised network-based approach rather than a one-size-fits-all training programme".

A group of 10 collaborated to share expertise, support and learning. They were, says Kelleher “keen to convert aspiration into action, and that principle, we have learned, is the key to making change happen.”

Each developed separate gender equality policies, now ratified by their boards and which they hope will be shared as templates for others. Some adopted gender blind readings or casting, unconscious bias training for staff, gender equity on boards, 50 per cent of new play commissions for women writers, or a commitment to gender balance in programming within five years.

The act of drawing attention led to change in itself

In Deegan’s experience at the Lir, sometimes just raising something is all it takes to initiate change; he asked tutors about scripts by women used in class, and the act of drawing attention led to change in itself.

Policy analyst Olwen Dawe, who worked with a number of the organisations, says awareness is "an important starting point, but not the complete solution". It needed key actions, measures and policies.

At the event, Deegan acknowledges “Irish theatre has been in the spotlight for the past two years, and perhaps in the dock to some extent. It’s been a particularly invigorating and challenging couple of years”. But he’s positive: “We haven’t given ourselves the credit for being front riders in this social change that’s happening in Irish theatre.”

The minister and her department were on board from the beginning, and having Madigan “personally invested in making gender equality a priority” was hugely beneficial says Deegan.

Researcher Brenda Donohue has welcomed the “concrete and intelligible pathway” theatre devised. “Such commitments require work, dedication, and flexibility in mental and sometimes emotional terms.”

Clarke says it will be fascinating to look back in a year’s time. “We are holding each other to account and the sector is holding itself to account. It’s not not somebody waving a big stick. We need to do this for the good of ourselves and our sector.”

"It's not easy task, so there's no room for complacency," says Durcan. "Arts Council research indicates the gender pay gap for artists may be as high as 50 per cent. It's also not enough to have more women creatives. Stories and storytellers shape our view of the world. With greater space for a variety of women's stories, we will shift the historic imbalance of power in every sector."

Gender equality policies – other sectors lag behind

Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan wants a wider application of gender equality policies, and her predecessor Heather Humphreys asked the National Cultural Institutions to have gender equality policies in place for the 2018 centenary of women’s suffrage.

Since January 2018 the Arts Council has made equal opportunities, including gender equality, a condition of funding, but it’s early days. The council takes the challenge very seriously, it says, with a working group and equality consultant working on an equality and diversity policy and strategy. (The National Library of Ireland has a similar approach). It hopes to have its policy in place by the end of the year.

It can't come quick enough for some. Composer Siobhán Cleary says all arts organisations should have a gender policy, including on equitable pay. 
She has just turned down a large commission from two Arts Council-funded bodies because she was offered 20 per cent less than her male colleagues were in the past four years, for the same commission.

While losing the commission has financial implications for her, she has hope for the future and feels younger composers and musicians may be able to change things.

The music sector appears less united, and a step behind theatre in the drive for equity. It has been pointed out that Irish National Opera launched in January 2018 with a Big Bang concert which featured no women composers, and their season's seven operas are all composed by men, with one directed by a woman. 
The New Music Dublin festival has never had a female artistic director or a female featured composer.

Sounding the Feminists picked up the baton in April 2017 after Waking the Feminists, and has made concrete progress, it says, with a five-year partnership with the National Concert Hall to promote female artists’ work (including a commissioning scheme and a chamber music series). It is also working with Dundalk Institute of Technology on a symposium on women in traditional and popular music in Ireland in November 2018.

While Sounding the Feminists says it has had a supportive response, issues for music include tokenism, ageism in opportunities for emerging voices, and balance in programming. It is important, it says, to raise consciousness about unintentional gender biases.

As well as working on the Abbey Theatre’s policy, Olwen Dawe  has worked on the National Library’s diversity and inclusion policy, and on Poetry Ireland’s board, fostering inclusion in visibility and opportunities for writers.

“Each sector throws up specific nuances but there are lots of similarities. The issue of the canon has been examined and discussed widely in theatre and, more recently, poetry.

“This is also true of traditions and norms in the way collections may have been chosen (or submitted by collectors).

“The phrase ‘You cannot be what you cannot see’ is a truism. If women, and indeed the wider diversity of society, are not visible on our stages, in our collections and our writing we’re going to miss out hugely on the talent and creativity of a vast swathe of our population.

“In essence, this is not just a moral imperative but recognition of the need for change to ensure we tap into the widest diversity of narrative and artistry.”