The barriers that keep women out of leadership roles have been well documented. And they’re persistent — increases in women’s share of leadership over time have been in the single digits. In fields with long or unpredictable schedules, with schedules that professionals can’t control, or with extensive travel, women’s representation in leadership is even lower.
One key reason is that many women are primary caretakers in their families. For example, mothers spend twice as much time on child care than fathers (15 and seven hours per week on average, respectively). Also, some women — and men — do more than take care of children; they also deal with aging parents or other family members whose care may demand many hours of attention. How does a woman arrange for someone else to care for her child or elderly parent if she doesn’t know when or for how long she will be at work? Most women cannot afford a live-in nanny, and few have a partner whose own work schedule allows for taking on care responsibilities at a moment’s notice.
All of this creates almost insurmountable challenges in career progression. These challenges can be daunting, both for an increasing number of workers who are not salaried employees of a company — such as freelancers or consultants — and for those whose attention has to constantly remain on drumming up new business — such as “rainmakers.” These workers are always expected to be “on,” planning how to obtain future revenue, while on the clock at their paid gig. How can they advance in their careers while juggling life and work demands?
To explore this question, we studied the theater, an ideal venue to learn more about career sustainability among freelancers and rainmakers who are also caregivers. Careers in the performing arts are rife with irregular working hours and extensive travel demands.
Artists need name recognition and can acquire it only through exposure in a wide variety of markets. But fame and recognition are not just the results of hard work and wide exposure; artists also need to make connections with people who can speak to their strengths. For ambitious employees on the executive side of theater, a constant push for more revenue can put their schedules into overdrive. Creative directors and producers, who are on the track to becoming artistic directors of a theater, most often work as freelancers. They constantly need to shop around their art of directing or producing to stay engaged and visible. If someone with leadership ambition can count on the recommendations of key, highly placed connections, visibility becomes credibility, and the chance to progress into leadership increases.
The aim of our study was to find out why so few women (less than 30% of theater leadership) are heading up the large U.S. nonprofit resident theaters, even though women make up half of all deputies in the field. We collected data from multiple sources: more than 1,300 surveys, 300 résumés, 100 interviews with randomly selected theater leaders and their next-in-line deputies, and additional interviews with theater trustees and search-firm professionals. This allowed us to describe the career paths, credentials, skills, and experiences needed to make it to the top of a theater. It also allowed us to compare men’s and women’s career paths.
Women were initially reluctant to talk about their family responsibilities and how their family life affected their career paths. Some interviewees did bring up the subject, but mostly when talking about others. For example, a male deputy said of his female colleagues, “I don’t think they aspire for that type of leadership role, given their family situations.” A male artistic director said: “You find most artistic directors in many cases — at least I’ve heard historically — have been men because they’ve been much more mobile. If women want to have a family, they become, sort of, they’re in that area, and they…can’t go freelancing a lot and work in other regional theaters.”
Based on this information, we adapted our interview questions to ask women explicitly about how they managed career and family roles. Once we openly raised the issue, stories flooded in. We learned from respondents that women in the theater, particularly mothers, were afraid to bring up their caregiving responsibilities for fear of not being considered dedicated enough to their field or of not getting a fair chance when applying for a higher-level position. “Women are trained to shut up when they have children, because it is a liability. You won’t get the job!” one female artistic director exclaimed.
Not taking a job because it would land you in a family-unfriendly location or would require relocating can keep someone from being exposed to multiple influential theater leaders. Female caregivers in such situations may fail to build the right connections and therefore miss out on leadership positions. A subsample of our female survey respondents — those who had applied for leadership positions but had failed to attain them — attributed their failure to reach the top to a lack of wide experience and exposure to a variety of theaters.
The lack of accommodation for women’s caregiving responsibilities is one of the reasons they are not promoted into leadership. Colleagues may assume, without verification, that caregivers need certain costly accommodations or are simply unavailable (“Let’s not ask her to do this because she is breastfeeding.”) The absence of a field-wide discussion on the actual adjustments necessary is leading to career stagnation among talented and ambitious professionals and to a wide gender imbalance in leadership.
Studies indicate that men are invited to direct shows in resident theaters more often than women. These invitations lead to wide recognition. And wide recognition leads to familiarity and trust that these directors could be leaders. Such invitations, exposure, and trust are missing for women.
The lessons learned from the stalled careers of so many theater professionals have implications for professionals in other fields, who as freelancers or consultants — and increasingly as employees in corporations who are asked to bring in revenue — have unpredictable schedules. They lack access to child care or elder care arrangements when they need them, which can keep them from reaching leadership positions. While the expanding gig economy may seem to promise the flexibility aspiring leaders need in order to sustain their careers while (temporarily) dealing with caretaking, our data shows that in the theater field, going from one gig to another has not helped female freelancers or rainmakers to obtain equity in leadership.
In the meantime, new advocacy efforts are under way in theater on both sides of the Atlantic. After all, theater’s mission is to include all voices and life stories on the stage. Hopefully, positive results in the field of theater will soon catch the eye of companies beyond the performing arts.