fbpx Achieving Gender Parity | HowlRound Theatre Commons

Achieving Gender Parity

The 100 Women Plan

This week on HowlRound, we continue the conversation on gender parity which has been gaining momentum this year through studies, articles, forums, one-on-one discussions, and seasons and festivals focused on women. As Co-President of the Women in the Arts & Media Coalition and VP of Programming for the League of Professional Theatre Women, I have the pleasure of working with, coordinating, contributing to, and raising awareness about many of these local, national, and international efforts. This series explores what needs to happen right now—in this precipitous moment—in order to profoundly, permanently expand the theatrical community's views and visions of women, both onstage and in every aspect of production.—Shellen Lubin

During my twenty years as the Executive Director of WomenArts, I have often thought about how much more we could accomplish if we had the cash to hire a few more staff members. Lately I have been thinking about the fact that the gender parity movement as a whole is underfunded and understaffed. I have started wondering how much money and staff it would take to eliminate gender discrimination in the arts completely.

Whenever I speak at conferences these days, I try to stimulate thinking about the financial structure of our movement by asking the audience members, if you had $10 million to spend right now to improve the status of women in the arts, how would you spend it?

Usually the response is a moment of stunned silence. No one leaps out of her seat right away with a specific idea. Most women say they have never considered having that much money or power. Some women are hostile to even talking about it—“We will never have that much, so why think about it?” And almost always, someone will try to end the discussion with, “Let’s talk about positive steps we can take without any money.”

With $10 million we could have a substantial and diverse team of smart, well-equipped women who could be paid to focus their full attention on eliminating barriers for women in all art forms.

Three women smiling
Christine Young, Martha Richards, and Valerie Weak doing the official Support Women Artists Now/SWAN Salute to celebrate the release of their Not Even Report on the status of women in Bay Area theatres. March 28, 2015. Photo by Alessandra Mello.

A $10 Million Perspective
These responses are fascinating because $10 million is not such a huge figure in today’s world. It is about half of the annual budget of a regional theatre like American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, or The Old Globe in San Diego. It is a little bigger than the budget of Hartford Stage, and a little less than the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. If we look at the commercial end of our field, a one-hour episode of prime-time TV can cost $10 million.

Is it really so outrageous to think that we could have an organization or network dedicated to gender parity in the arts with an annual budget of $10 million? Given the persistent and pervasive nature of sexism, is it reasonable to think we can make a dent in the problem with fewer resources than one regional theatre or one prime-time TV episode?

At these same presentations where my $10 million question often lands with a thud, I am frequently approached afterwards by bright, energetic women who tell me they would love to work full-time to advance women in the arts, but they need to be paid. They have great ideas and are dedicated to the cause, but they live in cities with high rents, they have families to support, and they need health insurance.

Is it really so outrageous to think that we could have an organization or network dedicated to gender parity in the arts with an annual budget of $10 million?

And so I want to frame my question in a different way. If we had $10 million, we could give 100 women $100,000 each to advance gender parity. We could build a diverse team of artists, administrators, scholars, community organizers, and technicians. We could encourage them to pay themselves decent salaries, get the best possible computer and communications systems, and travel wherever they needed to go to educate themselves, network with each other, and develop their ideas. We might not end up with exactly 100 women, but the point is that with $10 million we could have a substantial and diverse team of smart, well-equipped women who could be paid to focus their full attention on eliminating barriers for women in all art forms.

Do you think that would change things? I do. In fact, I have confidence that if we could put together that kind of team, we would have a good shot at achieving gender parity within the next decade.

But you may be saying, aren’t we already seeing improvements in the field? Do we really need to spend all that money to fix this problem?

Four women looking at the camera
Sarah Greenman, Melinda Vaughn, Martha Richards, and Shelly Gaza celebrate Statera Foundation’s first annual conference on gender parity in Cedar City, Utah, the first ever gender parity gathering of theatre women in Utah and the surrounding states. August 1, 2015.  Photo courtesy of Martha Richards. 

A Closer Look
It does feel like things are improving because so many of us are talking about gender parity these days. In fact, so many studies are being released about the status of women in various art forms that it is hard to keep up.

But if you read those studies, most of them show that the employment statistics for women are still pretty bad. In some cases, the numbers haven’t budged in decades.

I think we are still in a precursor phase—we are moving towards the change, but it hasn’t happened yet. People are becoming more aware of gender discrimination in the arts, and there are some hopeful signs like the wonderful city-wide festival of women’s plays in Washington, DC and theatres announcing seasons with all women playwrights. But the field as a whole is still a long way off from 50/50. The challenge is to figure out what it will take to get to the tipping point where the barriers to women artists will finally come crashing down.

There is no shortage of ideas about strategies, we just need more people to implement them. Many people around the country are doing excellent work on gender parity—but they are squeezing it in between their day job, artistic work, and family obligations. It is amazing that they accomplish so much with so little time and money. How much more could they do if advocating for women artists was their full-time job?

Ideas into Action
WomenArts convened an international summit of feminist arts activists in Toronto in April 2015, and it was totally exhilarating to hear all the ideas flying around the room. We talked about developing school curriculums about women artists; increasing donor awareness of the needs of women artists; lobbying government agencies to increase the resources for women artists; providing childcare so that women with children could work; building networks where women artists could share information and help each other advance; and many other strategies. If we could fund 100 women, there would be plenty of work to keep them busy.

If we can agree that we need $10 million, we can talk about how we might raise it. It would be a daunting task for any individual organization to raise $10 million, but what if we divided the work? We don’t have to have 100 women working for one organization. In fact, I think it would be much better if we could use the funds to create or strengthen a variety of programs and organizations dedicated to women artists around the country. If we talk about 50 states raising $200,000 each, or 100 groups raising $100,000 each, the goals seem much more possible.

Think about what we could accomplish if we had 100 women who were grounded in their local communities and had regular meetings as a National Council on Gender Parity in the Arts, where they could report on their progress, discuss policy issues, share best practices, and generally cheer each other on. If we build a network instead of one big organization, our structure will guarantee that we are hearing diverse perspectives at all times.

I think we can bootstrap ourselves up if we can find a way to get started. Fundraising is not rocket science. It just takes a lot of persistence. As in any other endeavor, some people are more gifted at fundraising than others, but there are basic skills that can be learned. By having a network, we will provide credibility for each other, and funders will be impressed that we can point to groups all over the country that have a shared vision. Once the first couple of groups figure out how to hit their goals, they will become role models for other groups and our movement will start to snowball.

multiple women on stage
Julia Jordan, Martha Richards, Sheila Callaghan, Stephanie Ybarra, and Meghan Pressman discuss gender parity at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival in Washington, DC. October 4, 2015. Photo courtesy of Martha Richards. 

Potential Allies and Networks
Women are already organizing similar partnerships to address other issues. For instance, Prosperity Together is a nonpartisan partnership of thirty public US women’s foundations, that recently announced a collective five-year, $100 million funding commitment to help low-income women and their families achieve economic security in America. The partnership will fund innovative local leaders, programs, and organizations to do more research about the best ways to help women succeed, and to provide women with job training, better childcare, and other kinds of support. That is exactly the kind of partnership we need to form to address our issues in the arts!

We could partner with members of the Women’s Funding Network, an alliance of over 100 foundations dedicated to women and girls. We could develop educational programs with women’s colleges that want to help their students survive as artists after they graduate. We could work with corporate leaders like the Avon Foundation or Dove that have poured millions into women’s causes, and nonprofit organizations like the National Organization for Women or the recently created Lean In Foundation that are focused on advancing women and girls. There are lots of magazines and social media for women that we could use to share our messages.

In the coming months, WomenArts will be gathering names of people who might be interested in working with us to build this network. If you would like to participate, please write to me at WomenArts and sign up for our email list so that we can keep you informed about any future developments.

Eliminating sexism in the arts is an ambitious goal, but we can draw inspiration from our feminist history. People ridiculed the early suffragettes for thinking women would ever get the vote, and it took seventy-two years to get from their first meeting at Seneca Falls to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. But history proved the women were right, and history will vindicate us as well. Restrictions on women’s creativity will be as old-fashioned to our granddaughters as hoop skirts are to us. As Susan B. Anthony said, “Failure is impossible.” 

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark
Thoughts from the curator

A discussion and response to the call for better gender parity in theatre.

Gender Parity


Add Comment

The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

Newest First

This is so important - even talking about how imperative it is to ask for the resources women need is helpful. Women are culturally inculcated to not be assertive, and knocking down those mental walls is a huge first step.

In the late 1980s I left a job I loved and was successful at -- working within a feminist cultural organization -- in part, because I was not being paid what I thought my work was worth. I wrote an assessment of what I thought one of the failings of feminist work was at the time -- that we HAD NOT asked for enough money all along the way. Martha's proposal is so right on!! Thank you. One of my proposals in 2012 before the Women's Funding Network was that all their orgs spend 5% of their funds on women's media/culture. This would have been a start---bringing $3,250,000 into this critically needed arena of cultural and communications change makers. But, in one ear and out the other, not unlike what Martha describes when she raises her proposal before audiences. Let's make the change and go for the $10 Million!

I love the boldness of this proposal! It's shocking to think how accustomed we have become to asking for so little. The idea that $10 million is equivalent to the budget for one episode of some television shows makes the goal seem completely reasonable! Something I've learned from working inside a university is that money = time = space to think about things differently. I absolutely agree that having 100 women working full-time on the issue of gender parity could make a huge impact.