Theatre has made, and continues to make, commendable strides in improving onstage representation. But, offstage – especially in technical departments – we are still at the starting blocks. This is true of gender, as well as ethnicity.
Lloyd Webber Theatres chief executive Rebecca Kane Burton warns that a shortage of women in the company’s technical departments has “heavily influenced” its overall pay figures in terms of gender balance.
There is clear evidence (the McKinsey report Diversity Matters) that workforces with more ethnic and gender diversity tend to outperform those with less, so this is a very real, practical challenge for employers. And it is not a problem unique to LW Theatres, but is replicated backstage across the West End and in our major subsidised venues, many of whose workforces are broadly unchanged from decades ago – sometimes down to specific personnel.
Solutions will not be straightforward. There is no quick fix: it will have to start with a concerted effort to encourage young women and men from a wider range of backgrounds to train and look for entry-level positions in technical roles. There are initiatives in place, including The Stage’s own Get Into Theatre project (launching very soon) to help open up the vast range of roles available backstage to as wide a group of people as possible.
But it will also entail changing decades-old employment practices – interestingly, LW Theatres has noticed an uptick in women employed for technical roles since traditional job titles were changed in advertising material.
These new staff will need to be nurtured by their employers and the industry more widely, because, at first, they might not find a wholly welcoming environment. The recently launched Stage Sight initiative should be a huge positive in this area.
It is encouraging that in the case of both Get Into Theatre and Stage Sight, employers appear to have fully bought into these efforts. All of this will require the whole industry to pull together – from training institutions to employers and trade unions such as BECTU.
The unions, it strikes me, have a particularly tricky, but important, role. As member-led organisations, they have a duty to represent the interests of their current membership, but they might also have to be prepared to work with employers against the apparent short-term interests of some of their members in the hope of creating a future workforce that is more representative of the nation at large.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith