Encouraging Women to Think Big
When I was a recent college graduate, I was asked about my career goals by a friend’s father, who was a successful businessman. When I enthusiastically proclaimed my interest in nonprofits, he raised an eyebrow. Wouldn’t this be a waste of a good education? Why wouldn’t I compete in the for-profit, corporate sector and make some real money? he queried.
Yes, I had to concern myself with eating and paying the rent. But I was on a mission. I came to this career out of an appreciation for the historical importance of the arts globally and a conviction that creative expression should be central in community life. I also saw that the arts could facilitate understanding across cultural differences and belief systems. And so, the “profit” I sought was in positively affecting the world through the art.
In retrospect, I also had an inkling that nonprofit structures might be more supportive for me as a young woman. I knew I’d thrive in an environment that favored creativity over conformity. Though my focus became theatre, my interests spanned both the performing and visual arts, and I dreamed on an international scale.
But even with this ambition and resourcefulness, I didn’t imagine I could ever rise to the leadership of a large organization. For one thing, I didn’t see many women in these roles. If it hadn’t been for several mentors—including both men and women who encouraged me to think bigger about my own potential—I may not be in an executive leadership role today.
As a nonprofit arts leader, I am inspired every day by the growth in our sector, as well as the undeniable positive effect that artists and arts organizations have in their communities. At Theatre Communications Group, we say “A better world for theatre, a better world because of theatre.” We understand that theatres need knowledge, networks, and resources, and TCG has a role to play in supporting those needs. But theatres also have unique capabilities and responsibilities in their communities. If they choose to, they can help bring about justice and social change through the work on and off stage. I am rewarded every day by the ways in which people of all ages can engage with the artistry on its own terms, as well as the conversations and awareness that theatre evokes.
And yet, while there is so much to be celebrated, the nonprofit arts sector has also replicated some of the structural inequities of the larger economic system. Women are still underrepresented in top leadership roles, particularly in larger organizations. Research shows that women are still paid less than men. And the #metoo movement spotlights how women continue to experience sexual misconduct and verbal condescension at work. The nonprofit arts are a part of this reality, and I personally have experienced my share of sexism on the job, often in the form of demeaning language.
A few years ago, a widely read male blogger—in criticizing a piece I’d written for American Theatre magazine—compared me to Marilyn Monroe and asked “when can we get a grown-up back in charge?” Ouch! Given that the previous people “in charge” at TCG for five decades had been men, it wasn’t hard to see how problematic this was.
But while I’ve faced gender-related challenges, I have also benefited from the privileges of being a white cisgender woman in a world that is rife with dynamics such as structural racism, transphobia, and ableism. There is increasing awareness that, while white men have held the majority of leadership roles in both for-profit and not-for-profit settings, white cisgender women are the next most likely to be given these opportunities. This pattern flows through other areas too, such as who gets published and produced.
On an encouraging note, new generations of arts practitioners are demanding that organizational cultures become more inclusive and less hierarchical. That we recognize and undo structural racism and gender inequity, and name how we—as individuals and organizations—have benefited from these harmful dynamics. There is an emerging generational shift in how these challenges are being processed and addressed, including through shared leadership models and radically transparent decision processes.
Looking forward, it is crucial for people who hold positions of power to find ways of being accountable to the rising leaders who will inherit the structures we’ve created. While it can be difficult to let go of established ways of working, it is an urgent and exciting time for women to lead the way in transforming our organizations for the future. Let’s encourage the women around us to think big about their capacity to do so.
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