Report finds ‘culture of harmful workplace behaviour across Ireland’s arts sector’

Bullying, harassment, humiliation and sexual assault ‘likely to be accepted norms’

Speak Up: Minister for Arts and Culture Catherine Martin (second left) with Siobhán Bourke and Jane Daly of the Irish Theatre Institute, and lead researcher Dr Ciara L Murphy. Photograph: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

Speak Up: Minister for Arts and Culture Catherine Martin (second left) with Siobhán Bourke and Jane Daly of the Irish Theatre Institute, and lead researcher Dr Ciara L Murphy. Photograph: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

 

Bullying, harassment, sexual harassment, humiliation, victimisation, assault and sexual assault are likely to be accepted norms in Ireland’s arts sector, according to an extensive new report on dignity at work.

The researchers say that the data is stark and that “for many, it is an acknowledgment of a reality that has been hiding in plain sight. There appears to be a culture of harmful workplace behaviour across Ireland’s arts sector.”

Seventy per cent of the 1,343 people surveyed, who work across the sector from theatre to music to dance to visual art, have experienced such behaviour, and 53 per cent have witnessed it, according to Speak Up: A Call for Change, which was commissioned by the Irish Theatre Institute with backing from the Department of Culture and Arts, as a step towards creating safe and respectful working environments in the arts.

The Speak Up process began after claims of inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment against the former Gate Theatre artistic director Michael Colgan – allegations he has denied – came to light in 2017

The abusive behaviour is mostly perpetuated by men in positions of authority against women and freelancers in precarious roles. The report, which was launched on Thursday by Siobhán Bourke and Jane Daly of the institute and Minister for Arts Catherine Martin, refers to “a culture of acquiescence and acceptance evident across this survey’s data which is influenced by power dynamics that allow perpetrators to have a disproportionate amount of control and power”.

The institute’s Speak Up dignity-in-the-workplace process began after allegations of inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment against the former Gate Theatre artistic director Michael Colgan – claims he has denied – came to light in 2017, after he retired from the theatre following 33 years at the helm.

The institute broadened the research from theatre to the wider arts sector; its report says that an imbalance of power common in artistic employment relationships is “at the heart of the matter”.

The researchers, who anonymised the incidents reported to them, found indications of “a culture of harmful workplace behaviours” across all arts sectors, with percentages experiencing harm ranging from 66 per cent in arts participation/visual arts to 79 per cent in dance. Most incidents were in workplaces: in offices and rehearsal rooms, during dress or technical rehearsals, or at work-related social events.

Perpetrators were more likely to be men (reported by 67 per cent of respondents), although women were also reported to perpetrate harm “at a relatively high rate” (reported by 42 per cent of respondents). Women were more likely than men to be on the receiving end of the behaviour. Fifty-five per cent of men and 52 per cent of women reported witnessing harmful behaviour. Freelancers were more likely to face harmful workplace experiences; most of the perpetrators held positions of authority. Just 15 per cent of respondents said they have never experienced or witnessed such issues in the workplace.

Many alleged perpetrators were reported to be in positions of authority – falling in the category of senior staff, manager or boss, or colleague – and were sometimes the person to whom the respondent reported the behaviour

Gender is a significant factor, with women more than 3½ times as likely as men to be sexually harassed, and more than twice as likely to be sexually assaulted.

There often seemed to be no consequences for the perpetrators of harmful behaviour, with support often unavailable or insufficient.

Many alleged perpetrators were reported to be in positions of authority – falling in the category of senior staff, manager or boss, or colleague – and were sometimes the person to whom the respondent reported the behaviour. Some said a fear of blacklisting prevented them from seeking support.

The report, whose lead researcher was Dr Ciara Murphy, with Olwen Dawe acting in an advisory role, says that this is unacceptable and that people should be able to work “in a professional environment where harmful behaviours are not tolerated, and are dealt with in a sensitive and appropriate manner”.

The survey covered art forms funded by the Arts Council, but the issues may spread wider than that: in the commercial arts sector, the concert promoter MCD, which runs the Electric Picnic festival among many other events, is examining claims of “abrasive management behaviour” within the business.

Although the statistics are dismaying, the report makes clear that the survey was self-selecting, with all participants having responded to a wide-ranging request in February 2021 for people to tell the researchers about their experiences. As it is not a representative sample it “does not necessarily represent workers in the arts sector overall”, and those who participated “may have found it more relevant to them than those who didn’t”.

The report’s findings indicate ‘a working environment where bullying, harassment, and other experiences are not exceptional and may be an accepted part of working life’

But the report says the responses and analysis highlight “important issues and concerns facing arts workers who shared their experiences”, and indicate “a working environment where bullying, harassment, and other experiences are not exceptional and may be an accepted part of working life”.

Even aside from how representative the data is, the bare numbers are significant: 70 per cent of more than 1,100 workers in a relatively small sector of the economy reported experiencing harmful behaviour.

The report points out that harmful workplace behaviour isn’t exclusive to the arts world. It places its findings in the context of international research and of #MeToo spotlighting the wider pervasiveness of bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment.

But Speak Up says the arts world may be particularly susceptible. A UK study suggests the arts had the most bullying recorded in any single employment sector, with many managers not trained to deal with bullying complaints.

Precarious work and gender are key to the dynamic of workplace abuse, says Speak Up, with freelancers more likely to experience harmful behaviours. In Ireland in 2019, 78 per cent of those working in the performing arts were in precarious jobs; “within the artistic sector, there is an increased risk of abuses of power”. The relatively limited number of opportunities, as well as a limited number of employers, “creates a fertile landscape for abuse to take place and flourish”.

Wider research backs up the impression that experiences of bullying, and especially harassment, are gender-based. “Furthermore, it would seem the trope of ‘artistic temperament’ justifying bullying and harassing behaviours has allowed them to flourish unchecked.”

By far the highest number of incidents related to sex and gender, followed by incidents involving age or inexperience, sexuality, ethnicity or nationality, disability, class or body type

Murphy, the lead researcher, observes that “we recognise harm is a spectrum, and it can go from what you might consider to be a minor incident to quite a severe incident, some of which you could consider to be criminal. But the research team didn’t feel it was within its scope, or ethical, to create a hierarchy of harm.”

Glimpses of what is at issue are seen in the researchers’ categorisation of responses, in an appendix to the report. The categories include exploitation (precarious labour, overwork, lack of resources); pressure to avoid reporting/“speaking up”; inner circles, with certain figures protected; inappropriate behaviour accepted/normalised; those in positions to challenge problems actually perpetuate them; pressure to accept uncomfortable activity (such as nudity, risk); behaviour must be endured to maintain position/cannot be challenged; unclear boundaries between work and leisure; nature of creative work itself brings extra vulnerability; incidents driven by those in powerful positions.

Murphy says these categories give “a sense of where that behaviour might be targeted or for what reason”.

By far the highest number of incidents related to sex and gender, followed by incidents involving age or inexperience, sexuality, ethnicity or nationality, disability, class or body type.

The highest number of responses said abusive behaviour “had no consequences or was not taken seriously”; in other cases it resulted in “people leaving/avoiding/being shut out”; responders also said that reporting behaviour made the situation worse or that they were not believed.

The report, which calls for a zero-tolerance approach, recommends the creation of an anonymous, centralised reporting facility, the mobilisation of leadership, and the building of cross-sectoral support for change

The report offers “robust and insightful analysis and recommendations for change, both cultural and structural”, say Bourke and Daly, who stress that the report’s recommendations are “realistic and achievable” even though the arts sector currently lacks supports for reporting and resolving harmful behaviour.

The voices of the individuals represented in the Speak Up survey are the “agents of change for the arts sector”, and their experiences inform the study’s recommendations for making arts working environments safe.

The report, which calls for a zero-tolerance approach, recommends the creation of an anonymous, centralised reporting facility, the mobilisation of leadership, and the building of cross-sectoral support for change. It says that people should be able to report harmful behaviour without fear of reprisal and that there should be punitive consequences for boards and organisations perpetrating or covering up harmful workplace behaviour.

Minister for Arts Catherine Martin says she was “distressed to learn the extent” of damaging behaviour and the “layers of disturbing elements” that have emerged in the survey. Assuring respondents that “their voices are heard”, she says she will “work with and fund” the Irish Theatre Institute and other agencies to provide safe working conditions for artists and other arts workers.

Bourke and Daly say the findings are a starting point for overhauling workplace conduct across Ireland’s arts sector. “The lived experiences reported in the survey are unacceptable and demonstrate an urgent need for action. It is our hope that this report will contribute to meaningful change across all sectors of the arts.”

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