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Covid-19 has intensified the barriers women face to becoming leaders in the arts, writes Sacha Lee. The most marginalised will be the most important vehicle for change.

People laying on the floor working collaboratively

Women Leaders South West is one of 18 Arts Council England-funded Transforming Leadership programmes. The arts council launched the fund in spring 2019 to address the continuing inequalities that exist at leadership level in the arts, museums, and libraries – a proactive intervention for change. 

As Artistic Director of The Point in the South West region, and as someone who has mentored, nurtured and championed women artists as part of my job, my heart started to beat faster the moment the fund was announced. This was a chance to articulate the increasingly pressing thoughts I’d been having around the fragility and haphazardness of women’s career paths in the arts – the barriers, the lack of visibility, lack of confidence and imposter syndrome, and ultimately the lack of agency to feel empowered in the patriarchal system we are still operating in.

For some, these barriers are higher still – think about women who have increased caring responsibilities, who have a lived experience of a disability, or who may have experienced racism. You only need to look at Arts Council England’s 2018-19 data report for Equality, Diversity and the Creative Case to see how much change is required at leadership level for our cultural organisations to become representative of the communities they serve. Just 10% of people of Asian, African, and Caribbean heritage, 7% of people with a disability and 11% of LGBTQ people work in arts leadership. In South West England, 73% of Artistic Directors are white.

Some initial provocations fuelled the writing of our bid. Four of the largest arts organisations in the South West receive a third of the region’s NPO funding - Bristol Old Vic, Theatre Royal Plymouth, Wiltshire Creative, and the now defunct Nuffield Southampton Theatres. All of them are led by white men. Lynette Shanbury of Spare Tyre once said that, “as a society we are conditioned to envision a particular embodiment of power, and it is male in form. Male leaders, male-defined work structures, male historical visions of success”. We started to ask the question: what would it look like if these organisations were artistically led by women? What would it mean to other women artists to have these role models in the region? What would be possible? How might things be different in the surrounding communities? 

The programme

Women Leaders South West is an experiential training programme involving eight female-led arts organisations in the South West – The Point, Diverse City, Kaleider, Strike a Light, Pavilion Dance South West, Arts Asia, The Arts Development Company, and Activate Performing Arts. Each organisation will host two women associates over the next 18 months. The associates will receive a bespoke, on-the-job experience underpinned by social entrepreneurship training by Southampton Business School. Money is rarely mentioned when you train as an artist, and the school, a research partner in the project, will help impart some financial expertise. The WOW Foundation’s Founder Jude Kelly is mentoring the partners but will also be instrumental in connecting the associates with women leaders from all over the world. 

We are painfully aware that most of our partner organisations are led by a white woman, so to address the lack of lived experience of barriers we are working with three external consultants. Kym Oliver from The Triple Cripples, Maricka Oglesby, Director of the Women's Leadership Institute of Baltimore at Notre Dame of Maryland University, and Sabeena Ahktar, WOW programmer, writer and editor, will be on the recruitment journey with us. They will be our guides in ensuring that our recruitment is authentic and free of unconscious bias.

The programme kicks off with a retreat-style intensive for all partners and associates at Dartington Hall in April 2021. There we will unpick what leadership means, develop key tools and skills, consider entrepreneurship, and look at how to embed these ideas into the associates’ creative practice. The business school will provide training. We will then finish the year with an evaluative residential and an international symposium as part of the WOW Festival in March 2022.

The associates will receive a training bursary, and there is funding to support caring costs, transport costs, and costs to ensure inclusivity. It is important that we try to remove the barriers many women face in trying to build a sustainable career. These are often the hurdles that make women think, ‘no, I can’t do it’.

Inequalities in focus

We took the difficult decision to postpone recruitment back in March – we were one week away from the closing date. We needed to understand the fast-changing landscape in light of the coronavirus pandemic, what it meant for women, and how our programme might need to respond as a result, rather than just ‘go online’. Societal inequalities have come into sharp focus over the last six months, and women have had to cope with the increased intensity of juggling work and home life, often taking on the role of main carer. Women with disabilities have experienced increased isolation with lifeline services being stripped away – and then there are the women trapped at home suffering domestic abuse.

We also didn’t know where we would be as organisations as a result of Covid-19. Would we survive? Would we be in good shape to host an associate? Could we give them a unique, meaningful and valuable experience? At this point of operating within a pandemic we have lots of questions, and we don’t know all the answers. We’re hoping we can go on this journey with our associates and as Jude Kelly suggests “stand in the same circle together.” We are thinking about the qualities of being a woman leader that can empower, unite and inspire others. We want to build a cohort of women who are fearless, who can lead through their creative practice and instigate and activate the change that we are all so desperate to see in our communities. We know that art and culture have the power to cut across barriers. With women from underrepresented backgrounds in the driver’s seat, this will be our vehicle for change across the South West.

Sacha Lee is Artistic Director of The Point and The Berry Theatre
 @SachaLee0 | @PointEastleigh | @theberrytheatre

The closing date for applications to Women Leaders South West is 9am November 16. You can apply yourself or nominate someone.

Link to Author(s): 
Sacha Lee