Gender Bias In The Arts? Not So Fast…


Gender bias in the arts is not all it seems

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Last week, a report into gender balance in creative roles in Scotland was published by the independent consultant Christine Hamilton. The report, Where Are The Women?, was covered by The Stage and made available online.

Its findings were inevitable. Among them: only 38% of publicly funded theatre companies had women in artistic leadership roles. Women were only cast in 46% of performing roles, only wrote 39% of plays and made up only 47% of directors. In certain creative areas, the figures were even starker –  women made up 11% of composers, musical directors and sound designers and only 6% of lighting designers.

So far, so predictable; we know that women are unfairly discriminated against in many walks of life. The arts is no different. Or is it?

In an otherwise well-written and admirably-intentioned report, questions are begged. One might assume the conclusion was reached before the report was even started.

Three convenient omissions in the report allow a headline of “gender bias in Scottish theatre” to rise up unchallenged:

Firstly, the statistical significance of the data is never mentioned – a nerdish point to make, but without that, the discrepancies are mere curiosity, not robust analysis.

Secondly, this snapshot data shows the way things are, not how they’ve changed, or are likely to change in the future. To be truly relevant, what is needed is a longitudinal study, tracking creative careers over time.

Thirdly, and most blatantly, the report omits any mention of administrative and operational roles within the theatre sector. It focusses on roles designated as “creative”, which in some ways is a legitimate stance to take. But it also proves extremely convenient for the tone of the report to ignore the wider context of gender in the arts, which, as we will see, paints a very different picture.


I quickly addressed the first omission myself. I did the statistical significance tests* and can report back that yes, in many cases the gender bias is statistically significant. But in some important cases, they are not, and that matters.

To see why, consider The Wee Review. We have five section editors – four male and one female. “The Wee Review is sexist!” the cry goes up. Not statistically speaking it isn’t. With five editors, there will always be more of one gender than the other, and with so few, not enough data to draw robust conclusions.

With The Wee Review’s writers as a whole, a different picture emerges. Of the 82 on our books, 51 are female and 31 are male. “The Wee Review is sexist… the other way!” But no, this isn’t statistically significant either.

It might look like a cadre of male editors are leading a workforce of subservient female writers, but the statistics can’t convincingly prove it (and it’s not true in any case!)

As it happens, a crucial section of the Where Are The Women? report exhibits exactly this pattern.

Directors number 80 male, 70 female. Assistant directors skew the other way – 31 female and 19 male. Neither of these is statistically significant, meaning no reliable conclusion can be made about gender equality in theatre direction in Scotland.

This should at least be worthy of a bullet point in the executive summary of a report about gender equality in the theatre.


Having said that, the disparity in gender balance between directors and assistants is certainly worth comment, and Hamilton offers one:

“This has two possible interpretations: there is an emerging group of women directors who are gaining experience working as assistants before directing their own show OR women are seen as being important as assistants but are not awarded their own show.”

I’d suggest a third speculative interpretation – what we’re looking at is a historic bias towards men in senior theatrical roles, but this is being corrected as a new cohort of directors work their way up the ladder through assistant roles.

Here is where a longitudinal study would be important. It is one thing to point to a group of people and analyse their gender make-up, but another, more important thing to examine what is happening as individuals make their way through their arts careers.

“We don’t know for sure,” is the answer, but comparison with a 2009 study undertaken by Stellar Quines shows that change at least appears to be under way, as Hamilton points out:

“In the following areas the engagement of women has risen since 2009:
• Directors: 26% in 2009; 47% in 2014/15
• Playwrights: 26% in 2009; 39% in 2014/15”

These figures alone are not enough to go on, but the change (in these areas – design roles showed a small decrease) appears to be very firmly in one direction. The imbalance may in fact disappear completely as female assistant directors progress.

This is an important possibility to bear in mind when faced with a paper like this whose purpose is steering policy change.


Enough of the stats geekery, though. It is the third omission from this study that is the most serious. It’s an omission that robs us of essential context, context which throws a whole different light on conclusions. It is not something that is omitted entirely, but given almost incidental mention in a quote from the Scottish Government on p.24:

“Creative Scotland’s Equalities, Diversity and Inclusion Report 2015… showed that in the arts bodies that Creative Scotland funded in 2013-14, women made up 58 per cent of the workforce and 65 per cent of operational management.”

65% of operational management in Scottish arts organisations is female.

65% of operational management in Scottish arts organisations is female.

65% of operational management in Scottish arts organisations is female!

This should be quite the discovery in a report about gender bias in the arts. And yet… here we are, being asked to consider a 54/46 male bias in performers and a 53/47 male bias in directors as grossly unfair.

If the purpose of this report was to explore an anomaly whereby those in the administrative side of the arts tend to be female, whereas those on the artistic side tend to be male, all this would be fair comment.

But the report is titled Where Are The Women? It is being used to influence policy making. It is being reported as highlighting a gender gap (in favour of men) in Scottish theatre. It is, we can reasonably assume, attempting to position gender bias in the arts into the wider debate on equality in general, which, with justification, argues that women are discriminated against in many realms of life. Therefore, it is wholly disingenuous to focus on one section of the arts that proves the point, without a full acknowledgement that in the arts as a whole, gender bias is, if anything, the other way round.

The report also accepts that two of the leading politicians in this policy area – Cabinet Secretary, Fiona Hyslop MSP and Claire Baker MSP, Labour spokesperson on the arts – are female.

This leads Hamilton to say: “When we ask the question, ‘Where are the women?’, the answer is: in positions of power but not exercising it for the benefit of women working in creative roles in professional theatre.”

No, the answer is: in positions of power in arts policy, in positions of power in arts administration, but perhaps not so much in roles of artistic direction. That would be the more objective conclusion. (As for anyone who believes that power is to be exercised for the benefit of those of the same gender – they have a different concept of equality to me.)


Impressive though it is to have assembled this report independently, through the work of volunteers, and the intentions behind it were good-natured, it cannot go unchallenged. It aims to influence public policy and has been given credence by the leading theatre publication. The “takeaways” it offers are easily adopted. “There’s a gender bias against women in the arts,” can quickly become “fact”, especially since it fits with prevailing opinions in society at large. Anyone who aspires to equality or intellectual honesty, however, cannot allow that to pass without some devastating “65% of operational management in Scottish arts organisations is female” -shaped caveats.

We all want an arts sector that both reflects society, and shapes it for the better. There are some very glaring ways in which it doesn’t – class and colour being the most obvious. With that in mind, there are much more pressing concerns than totting up the numbers of males and females in a restricted segment of our industry.

* Details of statistical tests have been omitted for readability, but were conducted with chi-square tests (with significance level p<0.05) on GraphPad online

/ @peaky76

Robert is the Managing Editor of The Wee Review and has been writing for the site since early 2014. Previously, he was manager of the Yorkshire arts website, digyorkshire. He pays bills by working for a palliative care charity and lives in Edinburgh.


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