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TBA Online: News & Features: November 2017

Putting Women in Power: A Report from the Berkshire Leadership Summit

Wednesday, November 15, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: TBA Staff
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by Lauren Spencer

When Rachel Fink began to climb the career ladder her biggest challenge seemed to be learning to navigate the process. The current managing director of Theatre Bay Area recalls her multi-year quest for a managing director position at a producing theatre and the process of interviewing with the executive search firms engaged by theatres to handle the hiring process.

“I’ve worked with each of the major firms multiple times and their approaches vary wildly. Each has a particular style of preparing and presenting candidates to a search committee, whether asking candidates to compose detailed essay questions or make community presentations or attend social gatherings with key stakeholders.”

But as Fink gained more experience interviewing and began regularly finding herself in the finalist stage, she started noticing some troubling trends: “Men with less experience or who were making lateral moves were being hired, friends and past colleagues of the current artistic director were hired, and the job requirements for managing directors changed over time and were more heavily focused on demonstrated past fundraising achievements. While I’m self-aware enough to know that not every position would have been a match, I definitely noticed a pattern.”

Rachel Fink

Her experience mirrors the findings of the Wellesley Centers for Women’s study (commissioned in 2013 by American Conservatory Theatre’s current artistic director, Carey Perloff, and former executive director Ellen Richards) on the gender equity of leadership opportunities in American nonprofit theatre. After two years of research involving the 74 member institutions of the League of Resident Theaters (LORT), WCW found that although women in American theatre make up 59 percent of senior managerial staff such as associate artistic directors, general managers, and finance directors, they have never held more than 27 percent of executive leadership positions as artistic or executive directors. Even more shockingly, that percentage has held steady for the past thirty years and, perhaps less shockingly, represented little to no women of color. 

Fink discovered she was not alone in her experiences when she attended ACT’s 2016 Women in Leadership convening. There WCW presented their findings as well as their conclusion on the main barriers to women achieving leadership roles. It seemed that many women vying for leadership positions in theatre were encountering the same impediments to advancement. 
Fink recalls, “In one of the breakout sessions, Kristen van Ginhoven from WAM Theatre stood up and said, ‘Great that we have the research. Now I want to do something about it.’”

Kristen van Ginhoven. Photo courtesy of WAM Theatre.

Van Ginhoven, the artistic director of WAM, offered to host a summit at her theatre and invited anyone who was interested in planning with her to join. Fink jumped at the opportunity as did Akiba Abaka, the audience development manager at ArtsEmerson and Shafer Mazow, senior grants manager at San Francisco's Exploratorium. “Really it was like a blind date,” Fink says, “We spent the following months learning about each other, how to work together, and our different backgrounds and styles as we developed the Summit.” 

The four comprise the steering committee that ultimately launched the Berkshire Leadership Summit which took place this October 28 and 29 at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts. Billed in its press release as an event “for women aspiring to, or already in, leadership positions (in early, mid, and late career) in the nonprofit theatre in both the artistic and management tracks,” the Summit attracted a cohort of 80 participants from across the United States and Canada.

Fink describes the Summit as an effort “to demystify the search process and provide training resources while also discussing collective action towards more women and people of color being hired for these positions.” The Summit focused on four key areas that had been identified in the WCW study as significant barriers to the next step in leadership: fundraising, producing, relationship building, and building awareness around the perceptions of women in leadership. In addition to plenaries featuring nonprofit theatre leaders, professional experts, and resource providers, sixteen skill-building sessions were offered on topics ranging from strategic planning and working effectively with a board to reading a financial report/balance sheet and learning how to advocate for oneself during a search firm process.

Berkshire Leadership Summit Steering Committee. Photo: David Dashiell 

While Shafer Mazow acknowledges that skill building is important, he stresses “It’s gender and racial discrimination that’s keeping people out of leadership positions more than skills. The major shift that needs to happen is who gets to be a leader, what a leader looks like, and what leadership is.” This paradigmatic shift is something the steering committee had to contend with in the very building of the Summit’s framework. 

“We're certainly aware of the damage and pain caused by past feminist movements and wanted to make sure we were being as inclusive and reflective and challenging as possible,” Fink says, “Intersectionality was part of the conversation during every step of the process.”

This focus on inclusion is particularly significant for Mazow, who identifies both as a trans man and as a dyke. He points out that while the WCW study speaks about gender in binary terms, a decision based on resources and the dominant methods of statistics tracking used by the theatres, they have also acknowledged that gender is a far more complex subject. As a participant in the initial study and now as a member of the steering committee, Mazow continues to advocate for the necessity of welcoming those who “navigate the theatre as women,” as he puts it. “A lot of what was identified in the research study about barriers to leadership for women were internal struggles,” Mazow explains. “Feelings of not having agency, not standing up for yourself, not banking on your potential but only being confident about what you have already done … many trans and nonconforming persons also face these internal struggles.”

The committee pursued a broad range of applicants that would include trans women, nonbinary, and nonconforming persons. They also focused on cultural and racial diversity as well as a diverse range of experience in the field in terms of length of career and positionality. “We wanted to allow for wisdom from multiple experiences,” Fink says. “We wanted those with positional power to participate and build relationships with attendees but not overpower the room, and we wanted to create space for possible mentorship/sponsorship.”

Porsche McGovern. Photo courtesy of Ms. McGovern.

Participant and lighting designer Porsche McGovern, whose study on gender representation in LORT designers and directors has been featured on HowlRound, emphasizes the value of this cross-sectional approach. “When I look back and concentrate on my own actions as a lighting designer and assistant lighting designer, I've worked hard to be good at leading others,” McGovern says. “Although I don't want to be an [artistic director], I think I could learn to be a great associate AD. I'm just not sure how to get there without starting all over again.”

 Engaging with the prismatic complexity of myriad identities required what Mazow describes as both “deeply joyous and deeply hard” conversations. The committee worked to meet this challenge by proposing the adoption of a “Brave Spaces” framework. The Group Understanding underlying this framework, which was shared in advance with all speakers and attendees, included contracts such as “allowing for ‘controversy with civility’” and “owning our intentions and impact.” At the same time, the committee recognized the inevitability of mistakes and growing pains. “There's no singular experience of womanhood,” Mazow says. “And there's no singular experience of fighting for your place as a person who's navigated the world as a woman ... that doesn't take away the conflict. It acknowledges it. We're all different and it's hard.”

 Participants like McGovern assert that these differences are integral to the future of theatre. “Having diverse voices in the decision-making process of American theatre is vital to its renewal and survival,” McGovern says. Survival is a pressing concern for many of the Summit’s cohort. As American theatre faces what Mazow calls a “historic exodus of leadership,” there is renewed urgency around the advancement of women to positions of power.

 Fink breaks down the potential consequences of continuing to overlook qualified candidates: “There are a number of women and women of color who are next in line for leadership positions. If there is not a significant shift in hiring practice and these women are not selected for positions, then they are going to leave the field. Because if the field is saying ‘you’re not being valued for your work,’ they’ll go some other place where they will be valued. The next two years are going to be really what happens to us as a field and then where we go as a culture.”

Now that the Summit has concluded, the steering committee is envisioning the role it will play during those next two years. “Having the conversation about shifting the paradigm is multi-layered, multi-faceted and is a long-haul conversation,” says Mazow. Therefore, he would like to see the Summit become an annual event. Various institutions across the country have expressed interest in hosting. Fink wants to explore how the Summit might shift the power dynamics of hiring both by populating theatres’ boards of trustees with diverse members and engaging with funders and grantmakers. Both emphasize the committee’s commitment to expanding the diversity of both the participants and the members of the steering committee. Participant feedback will play a central role in any future iterations. In early winter, the committee plans to go on an intensive retreat to synthesize and reflect on the feedback from participants’ post-summit surveys and propose next steps.

The Summit closed with attendees articulating their own personal manifestos for moving forward. Fink explains the committee’s hope that these are the Summit’s next action, “the activation of these personal commitments are moving the work towards equity forward.” Evidence of this is already surfacing in the comments and experiences being shared on the cohort’s closed Facebook group. The immediacy of progress is no surprise to Fink: “We knew that if we were able to gather a group of women who represented a variety of different perspectives and experiences, who all had aspirations for executive leadership, and who had elected to dedicate time to this issue, that it would be powerful and reverberate.”

 Lauren Spencer is an actor, activist, and teaching artist based in San Francisco.