Big Dance QT: Let’s talk quotas!

A diverse cast of people converged on London’s City Hall on July 6 to partake in Dance Umbrella and Big Dance’s gender debate.

For a brief overview of what the conversation was about, check out The Stage’s write-up, or scroll through #BigDanceQT on Twitter (we’re all probably, definitely still hitting F5 for an update!).

Following the debate, it would be worth delving deeper into the question of quotas – around 10 minutes was spent exploring the benefits and shortcomings.

It was concluded that “strategic quotas” could be beneficial if, and only if, they created a trickledown effect. But how effective can quotas be? The Norway model was brought up by an audience member, not specifically of artistic buildings or organisations, but of Norwegian corporate boards. The “Women on Boards” quota was introduced in 2006 as a legislative act, demanding at least 40 per cent of board members in limited companies to be of either sex.

The Guardian reported on gender equality quotas in 2011, and had a look at some of the positives and negatives of such a venture.

Quoted from the article titled ‘Boardroom quotas for women? Good and bad’, we look at the positive:

“…quotas increase female leadership and influence policy outcomes. In addition, rather than create a backlash against women, quotas can reduce gender discrimination in the long-term.” – On the Indian model for government, introduced in 1993

But on the negative side:

“The [Norwegian] quota led to younger and less experienced boards, increases in leverage and acquisitions, and deterioration in operating performance, consistent with less capable boards.” – A paper by Kenneth Ahern, titled the Changing of the Boards.

Just meeting a quota could be detrimental, as it doesn’t get to the core of the problem, and only looks at it as numbers; leading quite easily to box-ticking and token roles. Another issue to worry about.

“In Norway, a lot of the roles held by women are reportedly non-executive positions and individual women often [just] sit on multiple boards [to meet quotas]. These women are charmingly known as the ‘golden skirts’” – Entrepreneur Frances Dickens, 2015

A look at Norway’s progression however shows that quotas can work. In 2003, according to the European Commission, 30% of working women in Norway were employed in roles categorized as managers. In 2015, the number rose to 37%.

The slow but gradual progress paved the way to more diverse organisations, with women in different roles employed through merit rather than just because of their genders (Akram Khan, is that you?!).

Tonic Theatre’s Lucy Kerbel suggested that a very careful, detailed, and long term plan must be identified, similar to the Norwegian model, for the trickledown effect to occur in the UK.

It’s imperative to note the intervention of government. Do we in the UK need the same input from our government to put pressure on hundreds of artistic organisations (or companies in general) in order to implement quotas effectively?

Tamsin Fitzgerald, Artistic Director of 2faced Dance, pointed out how, in her experience, conversations showed there was a lack of just that – pressure to change the status quo, “ignorance” being one of the main reasons.

Through legislative intervention, perhaps the issue can start to be addressed. Hands can be forced to face the problems head on (as opposed to all female programmes here and there – that’s just the start!). And it needs to start from many places collectively. The number of talks over the last decade is proof that this movement needs a boost in momentum; continuous and long lasting.

What other avenues can be pursued if legislative quotas don’t materialise?

The upsurge of The Bench, Kaleidoscopic Arts, Cloud Dance Festival and many other new (and old) initiatives can be taken to a grander stage. Dance Umbrella and Big Dance’s partnership in this talk also speaks volume of what is being done, and what needs to keep being done. Tonic Theatre’s collaboration with other theatres to create gender aware projects can also be looked at.

Lucy Kerbel spoke of the lack of time and resources buildings and organisations have in order to be more effective in tackling gender inequality – busy putting on shows, creating programmes, seasons etc. Allowing an outsourcing partnership with smaller scale companies dedicated to the cause could prove to be very helpful.

Imagine a Big Dance bus touring the nation, and on top of its usual celebratory endeavor, includes works by brilliant female choreographers, and raises awareness through such companies.

UNICEF’s gender equality policy ensures strategic plans are created and implemented in regions and countries it operates in. In a similar fashion, artistic organisations and buildings could create a set of strategic plans. But this takes time and resources. On to the next point.

Arts Council England. The most obvious choice in really pushing for national change – with resources and arguably, the time. They have the power to introduce a UNICEF style policy.

Ireland’s universities are currently facing risks of losing part of their funding if they fail to address gender inequality in academia (only 19% of the country’s professors are women). Can the arts council make such a threat?


Resources looking into quotas


  1. Whatever happened to talent, hard work, great ideas? Ever hear of Twyla Tharp? Quotas are a Leftnut idea for the weak and lazy. Isn’t it time you girls grew up and just understood the marketplace of ideas? Either you have a good idea or you don’t. Quotas = fascism.


    1. I would like to think being aware of who one hires is different to just hiring because of gender; no one wants that.

      Although I somewhat agree with your point (there are many negative and detrimental points about quotas), it would be somewhat naive to ignore ways in which quotas can help or facilitate a balanced representation – as I’ve presented in the article. It’s double edged sword that needs the right direction to be effective.

      Lucy Kerbel posed the question: “How do we recognise male genius and female genius?”. So to say, how do we recognise good ideas created by men and women?. Your statement about ideas should absolutely be true! But it currently isn’t. Flick through the website to find out about the imbalance between female choreographers with good ideas and male ones. They all do, yet somehow the male choreographers ideas overshadow. Can we really ignore the androcentrism?


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