Fair play: should gender equality in theatre be mandatory?
Playwright Julia Pascal wants more women in top arts jobs – and believes it's up to Arts Council England to lead the revolution
We all know equality is a point of contention in the arts. Think about the concerns raised over the lack of roles for older female actors – an issue that was decried by the late, great Margaret Tyzack and has been raised by everyone from Ian McKellen to the Guardian's own Lyn Gardner.
But what about the lack of meaty roles for women, of all ages? Playwright and director Julia Pascal recently complained to me that women are more likely to play a secretary or mistress than a main protagonist. Pascal, who was the first woman to direct at the National Theatre, believes it's because most subsidised venues are run by men who "choose male writers to write about male experiences". Not only does this limit the roles available to women, she argues, but also dissuades some women from joining audiences.
Whatever you think of the argument, Pascal is at least putting her money where her mouth is, writing plays with strong female leads, particularly in the political arena. Her latest show, Honeypot, which opens later this month at the New Diorama theatre, loosely retells the true story of a "Swedish blonde goddess" who becomes a Mossad spy. It's the kind of character we don't often see on stage.
But Pascal has a more interesting – and perhaps more controversial – argument: that the woman issue can be better addressed through Arts Council England. "I think unless we have equality being demanded at funding level, equality of employment for women at all levels, this is not going to change. I think the arts council needs to demand that this is implemented. I think it is purely financial – nobody will change unless they are forced to. There has been a massive push for disability equality, but there hasn't been the same for gender."
It's a timely suggestion, given that ACE is currently reviewing its plans for diversity. It recently launched the Creative Case, which outlined plans for leadership development and an aim to work with individuals and companies that have an artistic approach to diversity. The funding body says it wants to move away from addressing "past imbalances and reducing deficits and structural gaps", attempting instead to find solutions led by artists and the arts. Next April it will publish a three-year action plan of how this will be done. If I interpret this correctly, this means less box-ticking and more proactive support for diverse groups, boosting their creative output. All great, but the main focus of this document is race and disability, even if it does mention gender.
Should ACE be more prescriptive, as Pascal suggests? It's happening in the business world: a report published in February by Lord Davies of Abersoch urged FTSE 100 companies to increase the number of women on their boards to 25% by 2015, as well as boost the number of women on executive committees. While the former minister did not go as far as recommending mandatory quotas, he didn't rule it out as a future option. And in Brussels the EU justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, has said she wants to see the number of women on boards rise to 40% by 2020. She believes quotas could be the necessary next step. Spain already applies quotas for women, and France passed similar legislation earlier this year. In 2003, Norway introduced quotas for publicly listed companies. Within three years the number of women on boards went up to 42%. Not everyone agrees: some argue that appointments should be based on merit rather than gender, while others believe greater diversity makes better business sense.
The world of arts doesn't have trouble recruiting women, but women rarely move into high-powered positions. According to ACE's 2009-10 equality report, most full-time employees in the arts are women. Yet more men represent boards. The 2011 Sex and Power report by Equality Human Rights shows that the number of women chairing national arts companies dropped from 33% between 2005 and 2008 to just 8.3% in 2010-11. The Cultural Leadership Programme's Women in Leadership study of 2008 revealed that in the creative industries male leaders outnumber female by 2.5 to 1.
Clearly something needs to be done. More women at the top might filter down and have an impact on programming and commissioning. It may create more opportunities for female playwrights and actors, and fill a gap for audiences, going some way to addressing the often-highlighted gender inequality issues. But we can't know this for sure until it actually happens. I wonder if Pascal is right.
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