What do brown ballet shoes and emergency childcare have in common? Our two front page stories this week are both indicative of the way that theatre and the performing arts are catching up with the evolving social attitudes of its workforce.
Both show an increasing willingness to move away from tradition for tradition’s sake and embrace practices that chime with the daily realities of life in the UK today.
Dance has long been a multicultural sector: it’s great that Ballet Black and Freed have teamed up to create new pointe shoes, but it’s incredible that it has taken so long for a basic piece of dance equipment to reflect that fact.
Meanwhile, parenting and caring responsibilities are not new: but theatre’s seeming willingness to adapt its working practices (even a little) to make life easier (or at least manageable) for parents and carers is.
It would be easy to regard these two developments as wins for the workforce, but they can also be positive for employers. In both cases, they open theatre as a profession to people who might have previously considered it closed: parents who dropped out of theatre to raise children; or aspiring dancers from black and minority ethic backgrounds who believed ballet was not for them because they couldn’t buy shoes to match their skin tone.
If 76% of carers are having to turn down work opportunities because of childcare responsibilities, then many employers are missing out on their first-choice candidate for the same reason. If 44% of women with caring responsibilities (and 23% of male carers) have had to change role due to childcare duties, then a lot of expertise and experience is potentially being lost by employers – and money being spent on recruiting replacements.
It is worth remembering this as employers and unions enter their next set of contract negotiations. One of Equity’s demands in the West End negotiations with the Society of London Theatre is a five-day working week for performers and stage management. This marks part of a wider push by the union to make working in theatre more family-friendly.
This would, undoubtedly, mark a significant concession from employers – and there will always be limits to how much an employer can adapt to its workforce’s needs – but it would be wrong for them to think there aren’t potential benefits for them too, not least an improved ability to attract a future workforce that is likely to place a greater value on work/life balance than its predecessors.