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International Women’s Day: a look at Women Leaders South West


For International Women’s Day, we look at how leadership roles are still being kept away from women and how Women Leaders South West aims to claim these back. Please note that we use the word ‘women’ to refer to both cis and trans women, together.

Women leadership in the arts

Women are woefully underrepresented in leadership in the arts, despite making up the majority of both the arts workforce and the audiences we engage with. Think about that. In spite of every bold claim the industry makes and ever well intentioned seminar or promise that next season will be a women-led programme, we are nowhere. We are not even close. 

Diverse City is taking action by being proud members of Women Leaders South West. Together with seven other arts organisations, Southampton Business School and the WOW Foundation, we are creating leadership opportunities for women.

The arts are in a critical moment of change. The past year has bombarded us with hardship in the industry. It has also given us an opportunity to address the chronic imbalance in our leadership. Viewing male-centric thinking, recruitment and programming as a natural default is not only insufficient, but also actively harmful to progression. 

Those of us working in the cultural sector claim to hold ourselves to high standards of progressiveness. We view ourselves as forward-thinking as a group – leaders in the battle for freedom of speech, representation and social change. In the cold hard light of data, however, we have no right to such a claim.

Facts and numbers

Women make up around 70% of arts audiences and 70% of the arts workforce, but only about 30% of arts leadership (Elizabeth Freestone and The Guardian).  How can that still be? How can it still be something we’re ‘chipping away at’? If the system is so punitive to women that in spite of massive numbers of them powering the machine, very few are rising to the top, then the system is broken. Or rather, the system needs to be broken. It needs to be smashed to smithereens. 

Women are subject to the economic and logistical impact of workplaces that penalise women with caring responsibilities. Only 37% of women working in the performing arts think they will remain in the industry (PIPA survey, 2021). This statistic is a wake up call for a women arts workers recovery plan. The pandemic has revealed that women are in a precarious position in the industry. They are more often freelance and more often fractional posts. The pandemic has led many of us to breaking point without childcare, without our social supports. We try to create the illusion that around our Zoom meetings we aren’t providing emergency education and full-time care. Sometimes for our parents and our children at once.

Many women also face barriers of ableism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, classism and other biases, conscious or otherwise. This before we even begin to address the inequity of working in a field that expects you to take on internships and unpaid work in order to begin your career. This last obstacle is so enormous, we may never fully understand what valuable voices were prevented from entering the conversation at all.


The way forward is not only to ensure that diverse women are well represented in leadership, but also to rethink how we interpret that leadership. A top-down mentality limits the potential of women ‘in the ranks’. It creates a system where young women, or those new to the field, have no influence.

Undervaluing these voices means missing out on opportunities for innovation. These are voices who have not had to endure years of working within the confines of outdated thinking – who knows what they might be able to see? If we can provide opportunities for leadership roles to a greater variety of people, the industry can capitalise on a greater variety of perspectives, ideas and insights.

Enter Women Leaders South West

Women Leaders South West aims to upskill a cohort of people identifying as women. It does this through hands-on leadership experience with partner organisations over ten months, supported by a bursary. Women Leaders South West aims to create a powerful network of these women, who together can forge a supportive web of change makers, pushing forward as a team. We hope to create a positive ripple effect where women continue to spread new, better practice and foster the careers of others they encounter. 

Women Leaders South West will be the beginning of something big and make a permanent change to a perennial problem. We will announce who is joining us as our part of the programme soon. Stay tuned to find out who the two women are and what they’re planning to achieve over the next year. We can’t wait to see what fruit our relationships with them will bear. For now, happy International Women’s Day.

International Women’s Day: a look at Women Leaders South West
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Diverse City is an award winning organisation committed to diversity and equality in the arts. We are an engine of artistic and social change.

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