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Liberty, Equality and Unity?

This post was originally published on Theatre Forum's blog, on Monday 14th November 2017.

It is two years, today, since the issue of gender equality and, consequently, the lack of female representation in Irish theatre emerged onto the national stage via Twitter. Galvanised by the significant under-representation of women’s writing in the Abbey Theatre’s 2016 ‘Waking the Nation’ 1916 commemorative programme, #WakingTheFeminists brought to public consciousness the almost unconscionable notion of inequality in the arts. For many, it seemed impossible that the arts and more specifically, theatre would suffer from the same unconscious bias and cultural norms that other sectors – some more prominently than others – do.

Of course, this anniversary follows a significant recent period of intense discussion regarding issues of sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace, both internationally and closer to home. While these issues can affect anyone, the majority of allegations centre on power abuses against women in their working lives – ultimately causing great suffering, potentially hampering career progression. It is notable that on this pertinent anniversary of a key gender equality movement, public discourse has once again been ignited around the inequalities that persist – and the conditions that must be openly uncovered, challenged and changed, for good. Put simply; everyone is entitled to dignity and respect at work.

Looking back to October 2015 Lian Bell, one of the key founding members of #WakingTheFeminists, remembers that “When they first surfaced, the issues of bias against women - conscious or otherwise - really threw a lot of people working in Irish theatre. We were supposed to be the 'good guys'. The well-meaning and liberal end of society. But it very quickly became clear that these problems are real and have a real impact on people's lives. We had mostly got on with our work by blocking out that part of how we were all operating. A true blind spot. Now, thanks to #WakingTheFeminists, our collective eyes have certainly been opened; though there is still, of course, much work to do to address the root problems”.

Culminating in #OneThingMore in November 2016, on the first anniversary of the movement’s inception, over fifty speakers – from theatre to technology, defence forces to film – all spoke of their perspective on what one thing they felt needed to happen to progress gender equality. Strikingly, the core theme across all contributions was the necessity for concerted action; that awareness of the issue was an important starting point, but not the complete solution. That now the sector was ‘woke’ to the issue, it needed to consider key actions, measures and policies required to actively promote gender equality.

So, on the two-year anniversary of #WakingTheFeminists, what #OneThingMore has the theatre community and wider arts sector undertaken to further gender equality?

Immediately following the 2016 event in the Abbey, a working group was established drawn from companies across the sector and representing the full range of theatre organisations – a festival, a regional venue, a major national institution, a training organisation and an artist-led company. Speaking on behalf of the Working Group, Artistic Director of the Everyman Theatre, Cork, Julie Kelleher notes that:

“The group has found it illuminating and useful to work together as we individually create our own policies. We’ve been able to share challenges and solutions with each other, in a positive and supportive way. It is our hope that the policies created by each of the organisations would act as templates addressing the various components of the ecosystem that is Irish theatre, and that they would ultimately act as a resource for our colleagues as they work to make their own workplaces more inclusive and more equal. We hope to release this suite of documents to the sector at large in 2018, on a date yet to be confirmed.”

The development of gender equality policies was also the theme of a workshop hosted by the Minister for Culture, Heritage and Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys TD, in March 2017. As part of the workshop, the Minister asked the cultural institutions to put gender equality policies in place ahead of the centenary of women’s suffrage in 2018 – a timely milestone “to highlight the role of women in Irish society today and set ourselves challenging goals for the future”[1]. It is understood that most, if not all, cultural institutions, are undertaking this objective by the end of the 2017.

Less than three months after this workshop, the extensive work of #WakingTheFeminists’ research team, in compiling a detailed academic report outlining the representation of women in Irish theatre, was complete. “Gender Counts”[2], an analysis of female representation across the top-ten funded organisations over a ten-year period, was presented to the theatre and wider arts community at the report’s launch in Poetry Ireland on June 9th, 2017. Funded by the Arts Council and commissioned by #WakingTheFeminists, its insight and robust analysis offered a sobering snapshot of the paucity of female representation across key artistic roles – notably, that female writers accounted for only 28% of works produced, women directed 37% of productions and casts were comprised of 42% female actors.

On the same day as “Gender Counts” was published, the Abbey Theatre announced the next phase of its activity – the development of a Gender Equality and Diversity Strategy – to align with its “8 Guiding Principles on Gender Equality”[3]. Additionally, reporting[4] later on in June noted the possibility of gender equality becoming an Arts Council requirement for all funded-organisations – a significant development, if implemented.

The necessity for family-friendly practices has also been brought to the fore by Mothers Artists Makers (MAMs), whose Five Family Friendly Practices[5] highlight straightforward and practical approaches that offer access and support to working parents. Advocating for greater awareness of the impact parenthood can have on artists – often working freelance – MAMs have worked to show theatre organisations that simple changes can make a world of difference.

Today’s milestone definitely offers an opportunity for reflection – on all that has been achieved – as well as the potential avenues yet to be explored in advancing both gender equality and diversity in the arts. It is not surprising that the conversation kindled by #WakingTheFeminists has also created the space for other significant workplace equality issues to be openly discussed and dealt with, ensuring the status quo is not maintained but actively challenged. Indeed, while much has been achieved in a short space of time, progress is still required – in many respects – to effectively tackle issues that are deeply-rooted and encompass a wider societal challenge as much as a creative and artistic one.

In the coming year, Theatre Forum will produce and publish a toolkit to support members on their journeys to gender equality, diversity and inclusion. In line with the Department’s recent announcement[6] of sectoral workshops on pertinent policy and guidelines, Theatre Forum will also explore ways in which it can provide the sector with access to timely insight and information on employment law, process and policy. To ensure actions follow the heightened awareness of inequality brought about by the bravery of #WakingTheFeminists just two short years ago, Theatre Forum is committed to supporting its members and the performing arts community to ensure safety and dignity for all those working within the sector. Such unity of purpose will take us all a long way further on the road to gender equality, diversity and inclusion in all our workplaces.

Olwen Dawe is a Policy Analyst and Consultant, with a specific interest in gender equality and diversity, policy and advocacy. She is a board member of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, Poetry Ireland and CoisCéim Dance Theatre, and chairs the Policy Committee for the National Campaign for the Arts (NCFA).

[1] Minister Humphreys hosts gender policy workshop with Cultural Institutions |

[2] ‘Gender Counts: An analysis of gender in Irish theatre 2006-2015’ | #WakingTheFeminists

[3] Gender Equality Principles | Abbey Theatre

[4] “Arts Council moves closer to gender equality” |

[5] 5 Family Friendly Practices towards Gender Balanced Irish Theatre | MAMs

[6] Anti-harassment measures for arts sector announced | Irish Times

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