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The theatre industry’s gender paradox: Why do men dominate the professional ranks while women rule the amateur?

A new study has explored the issue of gender inequality in professional British theatre in which men outnumber their female counterparts by more than three-to-one.

Only a small percentage of women are making the transition from amateur to professional theatre

Academics from Loughborough University have investigated the phenomenon which sees female actors, crew and directors dominate the country’s amateur dramatics scene with only a small number making the transition to the professional ranks.

Despite accounting for 70% of the UK’s community performers, stagehands and production staff, women make up only 36% of all professional casts and crew.

The imbalance has led to questions about the causes of the industry’s gender inequality, and how preconceived assumptions about which gender performs which role within the theatre (for example, women working with costumes and men being employed as technicians) were limiting both sexes to stereotyped jobs.

The previously unexplored disparity is now the focus of a new study by Loughborough’s Dr Daniel Sage, of the School of Business, and Dr Catherine Rees, a lecturer from the School of the Arts, English and Drama, who carried out interviews with 30 people – all at different stages in their amateur and professional theatre careers.

Dr Sage and Dr Rees published the findings in the paper, ‘To do or not to do (gender)’ and changing the sex-typing of British theatre.

In it, they discussed the disproportionate situation which stems from a deep-rooted acceptance, and continued reinforcement, of the gender imbalance.

Dr Sage said: “We argued that the study of theatre is ‘sex-typed’ as female and theatre work as rather more male.

“This sex-typing produces massive inequalities in the career fortunes of women and men in the industry.

“When we spoke to theatre and drama students and practitioners most people did gender as they sought to understand how theatre was sex-typed in the way that it was.

“For example, students discussed how theatre is a naturally female thing to do, things such as dressing up, while practitioners talked about how the professional skills required to into theatre, like confidence and resilience, are innately male.”

In cases where people broke the mould, they did so by rejecting the idea the stereotypes existed, said Dr Sage.

He said: “Those few individuals that challenge the status quo – and argued, for example, that gender didn’t matter as much as hard work – did so by denying any inequalities.

“Our argument is that there should be some sort of middle approach, wherein inequalities are not reinforced and neither denied.

“Rather, they could be acknowledged and then subverted perhaps, for example, by discussing how boys like to dress-up to be macho as in superheroes, while women are resilient because they cope with discrimination.”

The study revealed that most aspects and jobs within the industry reflected the male gender bias.

Men made up the lion’s share of almost every role within the professional theatre business:

• Artistic direction: 64%
• Board management: 67%
• Technical/production: 67%
• Theatre critics: 90%
• University professors (theatre/drama): 73%

The study also revealed that 90% of all Olivier award winners were male.

Dr Rees said there were now plans to build on the research and to get the message to those in the industry.

She said: “We’re going to be developing the study by seeking new people to interview and, more significantly, we have also been awarded £3,500 to arrange a practitioner workshop where we present our findings to those who’ve helped us so far.

“The workshop will be also be taken to industry figures, potential academic collaborators and the press.

“And, we’ve commissioned Loughborough University based playwright, Carolyn Scott-Jeffs, to write a short play based on our research – a creative response to the findings.”


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