Categories
News

Why a programme to empower female arts leaders is so important

Last week I made a list of people to set up meetings with for a project. Because those meetings were with leaders of organisations, *there were more people called Richard on that list than there were women*


It’s time for a new way of working.


In the last few months two things happened.

  1. The Point in Eastleigh were successful in securing funding from Arts Council England for a Transforming Leadership project which will support 16 female arts leaders from diverse backgrounds and we at Strike A Light (SAL) will be supporting two of these women.
  2. I read Mary Portas’ book Work Like A Woman.

Both of these things set my brain whirring and as I lay in bed (ironically enough, at a hen do) I sent myself about 15 emails as I thought of so many things I wanted to do or change or articulate.

The Transforming Leadership project is not only the opportunity to address gender inequalities in leadership on a purely statistical level, it’s an opportunity to question how and why we work the way we do.

Most of my brain-whirring was about what the wise Mary calls “broader ambition”. There’s a myth about women being ‘less ambitious’ as a reason for them not applying for leadership roles. There are many systemic barriers that exist which could account for this imbalance – but, equally, women are not less ambitious if they are rejecting the existing baggage that comes with our current view of what leadership is: isolation, stress, long hours, a dictatorial approach.

If women want things for their personal life or family life too, they are just ambitious in a wider way, for their whole lives, which includes the workplace but isn’t defined by it.


In a previous job, I worked for an arts organisation where putting in long hours was a sign of commitment to your job. The word slacker was used a lot as a ‘joke’ if people left on time or worked part time. As someone without children I’d never considered why that might be a problem and how damaging my perceptions were. 

Since I first joined Strike A Light it has been led by two inspiring women – women who have challenged a lot of the things I held dear about workplace culture and my own value within it. I think that SAL has a working culture which is influenced by this approach and it’s one which I am excited to examine, try and articulate more clearly and share regionally and nationally through the Transforming Leadership project and to the new leaders we will be working with. 

Because that’s the thing about diversity in the workplace. It’s not about quotas or tick-boxes. It’s about the fact that things are genuinely better if more, different voices are heard at leadership level. Better creatively and better in terms of workplace equality. If something doesn’t affect you (childcare costs, the physical accessibility of a building, only seeing white faces in marketing materials) then you’re less likely to think about it or do anything to make it better. More varied experiences in staff teams means more people making things better and fairer for everyone. 

At SAL, our flexible working policy opens with: “we accept that the 9-5 structure was invented for a society when the men went to work and the women stayed at home. That society no longer exists.” 9-5 does not work for most people for a huge range of reasons and in our industry and with the magic of the internet is there’s no reason to demand it. 

When we consider other people’s needs, it makes the work environment better for everyone. Childcare might be a driving factor in moves towards flexible working but, for example, in the SAL office that flexibility also means that one staff member can do regular exercise classes which help her manage her migraines and another can cut their commute in half by avoiding rush hour. (Fun fact, while I type this it’s 7pm and I’m over 100 miles from our office, having spent the day playing with my nephew.)


But theoretically these ideas could be implemented by anyone. So: a scheme to support women leaders. Is it needed? After all, us women have got the vote, what more could we possibly want?! And when’s International Men’s Day, eh??! (It’s ‘19 November’ or ‘every day’, depending on why you’re asking the question).

Theoretically yes, legally, women should be treated equally so why the need for positive discrimination? Why not just ‘the best person for the job’?

Because of humans’ unconscious bias towards people who are similar to us, we usually think the ‘best person for the job’ is the one who is most like us. The status quo bias means that difference is seen as risky. If there’s only one woman or one person of colour shortlisted for a role, their chance of being hired is statistically zero.

Also, when shortlisting, the best person for the job on paper will be the person who has already been given the most opportunities and so has the most experience. So the same narrow pool is hired over and over and nothing changes.

Women are under-represented in leadership in almost every industry, even those where the workforce is female dominated. They’re underrepresented in board rooms and in leadership roles in large Arts Council National Portfolio Organisations. When married women retire, on average they will be five times worse off financially than their husbands because the current work structures are stacked against women progressing in their careers, earning more or managing childcare without detriment to their income.

Last week I made a list of people to set up meetings with for a project, and because those meetings were with leaders of organisations there were more people called Richard on that list than there were women.

Diversity brings in new ideas, new voices, different ways of looking at old problems. In the UK we work the longest hours in Europe and are experiencing a mental health crisis. The current structures aren’t ideal for anyone. It’s time for a new way of working.


At SAL we are trying to do things differently. This includes collaborative working. Everyone’s workload has peaks and troughs – if someone is drowning under too much work that week we will sit down and go through their list and either get rid of what’s not important or dish out tasks between the rest of the team. That’s better for the organisation in terms of getting things done well but also for that individual. This is something which the standard view of leadership, the competitive model of individual success and ambition, does not allow for.

I am inspired by the way we work and I never want to go back to working for a large organisation that creaks under its own weight and struggles to turn. I have also banned myself from using the word bossy. We use it to refer to girls, and only girls, who are being in charge, taking up space or talking loudly and giving instructions. We are saying that they are displaying the behaviour of a boss, a leader, and this is addressed as a criticism. 

I am proud of being a leader and I want to work for an organisation and on projects that encourage other women to do the same.


To find out more about the South West Women Leaders project as part of Transforming Leadership, check out the application information in our current Opportunities.