The cost of gender imbalance in the arts

Why are women arts administrators and dance teachers while men dominate theatres and senior management?
Artshub Logo

A superficial look at the statistics for gender balance in employment suggests the arts industry is healthier than most. While manufacturing is 74% male and health care is 78% female the arts and recreational sector has a much healthier balance: 53% male to 47% female. We have to be happy with that.

Or do we? While the figures look good on the surface anybody in the industry can tell you the roles are not equally shared. Women run community arts-programs, manage small art galleries, work in libraries and teach dance or music. Men are much more likely to get a gig as a director for the performing arts, to be artistic directors of festivals or to hold senior management positions in public galleries or museums.

The Federal Government’s workforce development strategy for Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Records and Museums (GLARM) noted the predominance of women in most jobs in that sector. Yet not one state gallery in the country has a female director, although Suhanya Raffel has just been named the acting director of the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art so maybe that’s about to change.
Performing arts also shows imbalance.

As ArtsHub reported earlier this year (2012), the Women in Theatre report from the Australia Council showed only 36% of productions of production by our major companies had a woman in director or playwright and only one third of artistic directors in the country are women.

The proportion of major festival or mainstage directors is even smaller.
Money and work-life balance are key issues. Many arts jobs are poorly paid but satisfying and often flexible.

The GLARM workforce development reported noted, “In many GLARM positions, a combination of pay rates not being equal to role complexity or study required but offering flexible work practices makes the work more attractive to mature females than males and younger people.”
There is also an issue of glass ceilings and traditional expectations. For all that the arts likes to see itself as a change agent, there are elements of conservatism, particularly in the heritage art forms.

Women conductors, brass players and percussionists are still rare commodities. As recently as 1996 the world-famous Vienna Philharmonic forbade women musicians, arguing they would change the orchestra’s ‘soul’ and ‘upset the emotional unity’ of the orchestra. Australian conductor Simone Young became the first female to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in 2005.

Introducing blind auditions has been a great help for orchestras but that’s not an option for theatre companies or gallery directors. I’m not suggesting affirmative action here – we must always appoint the best person for the job – but we have to ask why in a field where women are the majority workers they are still rarely top dog.

The issue of women stuck in – or choosing – middle or junior roles is of course live in many industries but what’s different in the arts is that we also have a problem on the other side. Men who want to pursue a career as museum, library or community arts workers can feel like Robinson Crusoe.
American museum director and writer Nina Simon, who is Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, recently opened a thread about gender diversity in museums on her blog.

She reports that museum studies programs in the US are 80% female and that a typical museum conference is 80-90% female.
Simon questions whether the domination of women in museums matters –as long as they go all the way to the top. But she acknowledges the importance of diversity in programming and is concerned the men opting out of museum work will mean men ‘slowly opt out of cultural institutions altogether and perceive them as irrelevant to their lives’.

That kind of cultural separation has already occurred in ballet, where audiences are overwhelmingly female. Theatre and galleries have a smaller but still significant bias towards female audiences.
A study of Australian attitudes to the arts” found men and boys have a substantially more negative view of the arts than do women and girls. If girls go to dance class while boys go to footy practice that will affect future audiences as well as career aspirations.

It will also affect the ability of boys and therefore men to access all the sensibility, awareness, creativity and appreciation of beauty that immersion in the arts provides.

When any aspect of the arts threatens to become a silo for a particular group, it is probable somebody is missing out. And when some are not given full opportunity for creativity and engagement with arts, we all miss out.