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A brief start to a conversation on sexism in the artistic and technical side of theatre

A few weeks ago on Equal Pay Day the New Jersey Theatre Alliance released a graphic of women in theatre compiled from a Broadway League study published in 2016.

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The graphic and study only looked a a few of the many positions on the artistic and technical side of theatre and yet it is still abundantly clear to see that women are under-represented in the industry. If this graphic were to also include props artisans, master electricians, audio supervisors/audio engineers, riggers, etc. the severity of the disparity would be even clearer.

I made the mistake of reading some of the Facebook post comments. Many men were quick to point out that stage management and costume design were overwhelmingly female, and that maybe the reason that more women aren’t in other fields is because it doesn’t appeal to them.

Let’s unpack that last bit. Why do we assume that costume design and stage management, where women are most represented, appeal to women more than sound and lighting design? In an article on HowlRound, costume designer Elsa Hiltner discusses how the disparity in the costuming world it stems, in part, to “our culture’s gendered views on who makes clothing, how much their time is worth, and the often skewed understanding of what skills are required to design and build a costume, let alone an entire show.” Women like clothes, sewing, taking notes and communication so they become costume designers and stage managers.

Similarly, I’d argue that our culture’s gendered associations with physical labor and technology is part of the reason that more women aren’t in sound, lighting, and set design. The same way that women are pushed out of STEM, women are pushed out of other design areas. Its assumed that the fields are “too technical” to interest females. In a spotlight about the all-female production team at the Boston Lyric Opera, Lighitng Director Bailey Costa said “A lot of times we interact with crews who are all men, and a lot of times, just because they haven’t seen it, they don’t trust that we are coming from a place of experience that is equal to theirs.” It’s not that women aren’t interested in pursing careers in production or in traditionally male-dominated fields of design, it’s that people assume we aren’t as interested or capable as our male peers. Working professionally as an electrician, I can’t count the number of times a male peer has offered or rushed to carry equipment assuming that I couldn’t but made no effort to do the so for another male.

Still not convinced? This image came out at the beginning of the national conversation over the proposed budget cuts to the NEA:2017-03-20 07.33.15This image is problematic for multiple reasons, but relevant to this particular discussion is fact that the power of this image relies on the cultural associations between “real work”, physical labor, and male bodies performing said labor. Women and female bodies are just as capable of physical labor as men and male bodies.

So lets stop assuming that women simply aren’t interested in fields where they are underrepresented in theatre and start talking about why people are still saying that and keep talking about the very real sexism in the industry that prevents women from being as successful as they are talented.

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