Gender Policies: An annoying necessity or fair and forward-thinking?

This month marks three years since the beginning of #WakingTheFeminists and the movement is still going strong. In July Irish ten theatre organisations, in collaboration with #WakingTheFeminists, launched their Gender Equality Policies. These organisations worked together to comply with individual policies that were tailored to the work they do. They have all committed to regular reviews and reporting of the results of these reviews. The organisations involved include two festivals (Cork Midsummer Festival and the Dublin Theatre Festival), three venues (the Abbey and the Gate in Dublin, and the Everyman in Cork), four production companies (Corn Exchange, Druid, Fishamble: The New Play Company and Rough Magic) and the Lir Academy. The policies were launched by the Minister of Culture Josepha Manigan in the Lir Academy on the 9th of July 2018, and the event was widely reported. This included an article from the conservative Breitbart website. I’m not going to link to it because I don’t want to give them the clicks but here’s a screenshot.

by Thomas D. Williams, P. D. `| 10 Jul 2018. Ireland’s feminist culture minister is pushing a policy to ensure that half of all plays staged in Ireland are written by women within five years as part of a broader “gender equality” campaign. Minister Josepha Madigan launched the aggressive quota drive on Monday at the Lir National Academy of Dramatic Arts at Trinity College to make sure that women are equally represented on theatre boards. She seeks an immediate commitment from theatres and arts festivals to guarantee that half of all plays commissioned will have female playwrights within five years.

This (male) journalist writes about gender equality (or “gender equality”) with breathless terror. Its an “aggressive quota driven policy” that the Minister is “pushing”. In reality, the initiative did not come from the government and as the policies are a list of aims and objectives, I’d hardly consider it aggressive. (The other thing that fascinates me is the photo they’ve chosen to illustrate the article. Are they dramatic witches? Do they equate all women with witches or just the aggressively feminist ones?) He seems to find the idea of gender quotas insulting, a step too far, almost a personal affront.

This reaction against quota-driven policies is not unusual. To be honest, they made me a little uncomfortable at first. The idea got under my skin in a way I found hard to explain. It annoys me that they’re necessary and I hate the idea that women need quotas to achieve success. I think most people react badly to the idea of needing special treatment. Nobody wants to be told or to think that we achieved something for any reason other than our own skills and abilities. We all want to succeed based on what we do, not who we are.

Then I remind myself how far the scales are tipped in favour of the men and I stop feeling bad about quotas. And that little niggling voice at the back of my mind telling me that quotas mean women aren’t good enough, that maybe there are some things that men are just naturally better at? I remind myself that that’s just the patriarchy talking and I am free to ignore it.

In order to get equal treatment, women currently need special treatment. Decades of research, not to mention my own lived experience, demonstrate that men and women are treated differently, their ideas are given different value, their work is given different worth. The research work that #WakingTheFeminists published in November 2017 demonstrated the inequalities that exist in Irish theatre. That research is available to download here.

Gender quotas aren’t giving women a leg up or tipping the scales in their favour. The scales have been weighted in men’s favour since the dawn of time and quotas are a way of trying to correct. Their aim is to make things fair for everybody. Reminding myself of this makes me less distrustful of the idea of quotas and gender policies. Reading the published policies also helps. They all list small and spectacularly sensible changes. They include things that we already accept, like equal pay for equal work. They all aim to establish a gender-balanced board, something that equally benefits men and women.

The policies are all different. The Abbey’s is a short and to-the-point one-pager, the Lir’s is 11 pages with a table of contents at the beginning. Druid’s policy starts with just acknowledging that there is a problem and it’s great to see that written down and recognised.

Among long-established companies with decades, and in some cases over a century of experience, the Lir stands out as the youngest company, less than ten years old. It also has the longest and most comprehensive policy. Their inclusion and dedication to the project it wonderful to see. Their policy goes further than the others, mentioning non-binary people and recognising the need for childcare facilities. None of the other proposals mention the challenges faced by parents. They will be responsible for teaching students how to treat people; those students will go on to create the Irish theatre of the future.

The policies make me excited about the changes we could see in the Irish theatre landscape over the next five years. I’m interested in seeing new work by female artists, and if that means we hear a little bit less from the male point of view for the next little while, I’m ok with that. The Lir also commits to looking at the female canon with “a view to championing productions of classical works by women at The Lir or on the stages of participating theatres.” which I think could be really interesting. I don’t think the policies will adversely affect the work these organisations do or the art they produce. If they do, I can live with less good art if it means the people making it are happier and healthier and feel more supported and recognised and represented.

I hope these changes in the theatre world will ripple outwards into the wider society. I hope that they will demonstrate that recognising gender inequality exists and setting out some steps to combat it is not difficult, that it will not adversely affect your business, that men will still exist and still have a role in society. I also hope it results in some really great art!

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