National Cultural Institution’s gender equality policy workshop

Creative Ireland Gender Policy Workshop hosted by Minister Humphreys
National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks  

Lian Bell & Sarah Durcan  

Thanks to Minister Humphreys, to all board members and executives & staff of our National Cultural Institutions, and to Creative Ireland for organising this day on gender equality policy.

Every one of us in this room is privileged to be both custodians of our culture and shapers of its future. The challenge is that gender inequality in many forms is still an unfortunate reality across our culture and in all our institutions. From our stages to our screens to our museums, wherever we look the absence and underrepresentation of women confronts us. The choice is simple: We can choose to continue to uphold inequality because that’s the way it always has been, or promote equality, because it’s the only way it should be. 100 years ago we didn’t have a Republic with National Cultural Institutions, and women didn’t have the right to vote. Visionary, determined and persistent people changed that. The conversations and work that you begin today will be a watershed moment in our cultural timeline – the great opportunity to finally fully include and recognise over half our population in all our cultural endeavours. A year and a half ago #WakingTheFeminists called on our National Theatre to lead the way in gender equality, and they began significant research and planning that now puts them at the forefront of this work in the theatre community. Today we are immensely grateful to you all for widening out the scope and ambition of this equality movement, so that all our institutions can become world leaders in achieving gender equality together.

Gender is the primary way we sort the world – it’s the first category we automatically sort people into – before race, age etc. Our culture is inherently biased against women and our history erases or diminishes women’s roles. We know that there are many challenges facing you in your work and organisations. And when we’re rushed, under pressure, and short on resources, we’re more likely to make stereotypical or biased decisions. Lucy Kerbel of Tonic Theatre (a company doing great and effective work in the UK in training in this area) proposes starting the equality process with a simple question that can help clarify your thoughts and motivations here: Ask yourself: “Why is gender equality important to me?” Take a few moments to think about that.


#WakingTheFeminists was a year long public campaign to raise awareness around gender inequality and to encourage publicly funded theatre organisations to embed systemic change in their governance, policy and activities.

We believe that action and change only work when individuals throughout the organisation are educated, empowered, and encouraged – everyone can then be part of the solution. But for long term change to be fully embedded and cherished by any organisation – leadership and direction start with the Board. Gender equality policies need to be championed, formulated, adopted and monitored at Board level so they become part of the organisation’s DNA. They set a focus and framework for action by the individuals who make up the executive and staff.


We called on all theatre organisations in receipt of public funding to establish and maintain equality for women artists by implementing:

  1. A sustained policy for inclusion with action plan and measurable results
  2. Equal championing and advancement of women
  3. Economic parity for all working in the theatre

This is just a start, but in the past year we have seen shifts in attitudes and actions across the theatre sector. It is now 4 years away from the deadline that we set of 2021 for our sector to achieve full gender equality.  While we are still far from seeing full equality, all the top theatre companies are grappling with how it affects their organisation, planning policies and considering the practical steps they can take. Representatives of key theatre organisations, from the national theatre to independent artists, are now working together to find practical solutions in a dedicated Gender Policy Working Group. We realised early on that by encouraging key organisations to work together, the positive impact on our community would be further reaching, which is why it is so great that we are all here today to talk to each other about our aspirations, challenges and solutions.

None of us can afford to ignore the issue – the price of exclusion is too high for women, but also for our organisations – in terms of reputation, talent acquisition and retention, and even finances, and not least to the continuing damage to our cultural future. Our audiences, stakeholders and the media increasingly notice and call out gender inequality – see the recent backlash to announcements of programmes by Druid Theatre and by Irish music festivals and literary festivals that featured few or no women artists. Taking proactive measures and communicating them well is essential.


We understand that it can feel daunting to address gender inequality – it is a complex issue with many roots – and knowing where to begin can be challenging. However, it’s not necessarily a costly endeavour to address – it just requires attention, commitment, collaboration and smart solutions. The important part is to decide to begin somewhere, make a plan, try something, monitor its success, modify it, embed it, and repeat the process. There are examples of success, training programmes, and quality resources available to assist in this. We are not experts in gender equality nor in the methods for achieving it. But we can share some of the things we’ve learned along the way in the hope that they may be useful to you in today’s deliberations. As organisations we may do things in unique ways, but we face many common issues in regard to gender inequality, and therefore there are more common solutions that unique ones, meaning we can support and learn and improve together. We’ve handed out a short list for you today of some of those resources.

#WakingTheFeminists encapsulate this as: SEE IT, SAY IT, MEASURE IT, CHANGE IT.

Take Stock

  • ‘What does not get measured does not get fixed’
  • #WakingTheFeminists commissioned groundbreaking quantitative research into the ten of the top funded theatre organisations for 10 years. This crucial baseline data gives a picture of the current situation AND a yardstick for measuring change. Following the money is one of the most enlightening ways of understanding gender inequality at work. In theatre, as the money goes up, the number of women tends to go down.
  • Measure to detect what’s broken and refine interventions.
  • Also measure what IS working in your organisation – where are the areas you’re doing well, find out why, replicate and share.
  • Identify three key areas you can start to tackle now. Think about how you’ll measure and track change over time in these areas.
  • Numbers matter, but it’s not just a numbers game – understanding how these numbers came to be and how they work with each other is just as important.
  • It’s more about creating the conditions for success in our organisations, than solely focussing on the numbers.
  • #WakingTheFeminists is currently investigating an online platform where orgs can easily track and compare their gender equality numbers – there is the potential for this to be adapted beyond performing arts.

Unconscious Bias

  • We all have unconscious bias and implicit associations that negatively affect women (1% bias in performance evaluations can lead to only 35% women being represented at highest levels of organisations)
  • You can get a sense of your own biases by taking the Harvard Implicit Bias Test online – the link is on the list we gave you. (gender, race, sexuality, age etc.)
  • Unlearning bias at an individual level is basically impossible. 80-90% of our minds work unconsciously (Eric Kandel, Nobel laureate), and bias is set between ages of 5-7.
  • Training programmes that only make people aware of their biases are unlikely to change attitudes and behaviours, and may backfire or worsen the situation for women. (Moral licensing)
  • The pathway to behaviour change is not a change in individual beliefs, but instead a change in socially shared definitions of appropriate behaviours. We can also make changes to our systems that help to cancel out inherent bias – one of the books we have listed called What Works, by Harvard professor Iris Bohnet, is a practical guide to creating systems that counter bias.
  • Don’t just focus on raising awareness – take action, and offer specific tools that help people make better decisions e.g. combining unconscious bias training with mentoring and sponsorship programmes.

Devising Policy and Action Plans

  • Plan, but move fast. Momentum is key.
  • Declare goals publicly and be accountable for them, know what you want to achieve and make a plan for how to get there. [Accountability works better at increasing equality and diversity than diversity training alone.]
  • Set both long term targets and specific, short term goals. Keep it simple – don’t try to do everything all at once.
  • Share what you’re doing with others. Working together will yield big and lasting results.
  • Test what works and what doesn’t. Adjust and repeat as you go along.
  • Checklists can help – surgeons and pilots use then – why not let them be a tool in changing our systems?

 Final thoughts:

Importance of role models
Behavioural economics can offer many tools to create environments to help better achieve gender equality goals, and avoid many pitfalls.
Difference between equality and diversity – both are necessary.
For more thoughts and actions see Lian’s List


Athena Swan Charter gender equality in STEMM at third level education

Nina Simon on making museums and cultural institutions accessible: