No one working in the Arts has failed to cheer the fresh air blowing in the window in the wake of the #MeToo movement but there is also a ripple of disquiet about what’s NOT being said about the atmosphere that has allowed abusive environments to flourish and the broader subject of abuse and bullying in the sector. Some comments and suggested remedies have been narrow and ridiculous. While there is nothing wrong with intimacy coaches on the stage, it is insulting to suggest that this will help stem sexual harassment in the performing Arts. Although performers might be called upon to act, dance or sing sexual scenes, do we really believe that they are unable to distinguish this from being propositioned, fondled or blackmailed into sexual activity off-stage? How stupid do we really think arts-workers are, when we propose that this is a “gray area”? No there is nothing “gray” about abuse in the workplace. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, it really is a case of “a workplace is a workplace, is a workplace”. And getting those in power within the arts to realize that will be the first big step in reducing workplace bullying.
“a workplace is a workplace, is a workplace”
In some reports about the Weinstein revelations and the local Soulpepper scandal, reporters have asked the question “why did it take so long for women to come forward”? While individual fears of retribution and the power imbalance do make for convincing explanations, I think it is important to consider that this is only part of answer. There are many types of bullies in our society but in most workplaces bullying is held in check by laws and social codes of conduct that limit at least the worst violations of employees’ human and employment rights and inappropriate behaviour. However, there are workplaces that have traditionally had, and continue to foster, the idea that they are separate from the normal realm of human endeavors and where leaders and governing bodies form the impression that the rules don’t really apply to them, their organizations or employees, or at least should not apply. In the Arts there is this image of “The Artist” whom is usually male, and is thought of as some super-human, often temperamental, highly intelligent and with super-human “appetites”. It is believed that this god-like entity is some force of nature that needs to operate outside of the usual rules of society. This overly romanticized view colours organizational behaviour in many arts organization. It also permeates the consciousness of impressionable and vulnerable young women and men.
In my own career I remember speaking to a regional symphony Board of Directors about the need for their Music Director to align some of his methods of recruiting, firing and disciplining musicians with the Musicians Union rules before there were repercussions. At first the (all male middle-aged or older) Board Members did not believe that there were any rules that could prevent “the Maestro” from doing as he pleased with any musician and were ignorant of the employment and union rules governing a professional orchestra. Disabused of their archaic beliefs when faced with the evidence, this Board was horrified, and regaled each other with accounts of abusive behaviour towards musicians and singers by conductors and composers dating back centuries. It was clear that these Board Members believed that their job was to preserve the absolute right of their Artistic leader and to deny/limit any human and employment rights accorded musicians to the best of their ability. This was not an isolated incidence.
Beyond the god-like stature accorded the individual artist or artistic leader, the “Art” itself is deified and arts workers are shamed variously by leaders, managers or colleagues as slackers/traitors if they whistle-blow or have the audacity to insist on their basic human and employment rights. It seems like there is always someone in any arts organization with a martyr complex who thinks that anything short of 24/7 dedication is just not trying hard enough and follows a pattern of shaming and blaming colleagues. In some cases, it is the entire organization that buys into this behaviour and changing it is very difficult. It’s clear why the other places we hear about such abuses are politics and NGO’s, other places with cultures of deified leaders (mostly male) and cultures where those in power feel they are operating outside of the laws governing other workplaces and employees are expected to put their lives and rights on hold “for the good of the cause”.
In the case of sexual harassment and bullying of women in the arts, it is important to remember the broader cultural context of sexism in our society because that is what gives men the permission to abuse women and what sets up the use of sex as a power-game. Germaine Greer said “women have very little idea of how much men hate them”. Make no mistake that coerced sex is about power and not about just lust. And while women made some gains toward fuller participation in society, it is apparent to most of us that those gains stalled sometime in the 1990’s. In those years I heard younger women proclaiming that feminism was old news, all the battles had been won. They were so wrong and we have been losing ground ever since. We see it in the US with abortion rights and pay equity legislation being rolled back, a transparent misogynist elected president and we witness the depth of hatred being levelled at Hilary Clinton and in Ontario, an inexplicable level of hostility against Kathleen Wynne. Sexual harassment is just one of the ways that men attempt to humiliate and control women. If we just address just that one symptom, we won’t fix the culture supporting it.
In a recent NY Times article, “Picture a leader, is she a woman?” it was demonstrated just how blind both men AND women are to women leaders. Tina Kiefer, a professor of organization behaviour from the University of Sheffield in the UK has demonstrated that across cultures and genders when we ask individuals to “draw a leader”, they will draw a man almost 100% of the time. When shown a film where a male actor in a group scene demonstrates problem-solving skills and proposes courses of action, viewers identify him as a leader. Show viewers a video with the same script but the problem solver is a woman, she will not be identified as a leader by anywhere near the same percentage of people. This societal attitude of blindness and hostility toward women in power combine with the toxic environments in arts workplaces to make many arts workplaces a particularly damaging place for female leaders.
“. . . across cultures and genders when we ask individuals to ‘draw a leader.’ they will draw a man almost 100% of the time.”
In one of my first arts management positions, as a General Manager I had some very functional disagreements with the organization’s Artistic Director. These took the shape of planning schedules, nailing down production details in a timely manner and attempting to limit artistic plans to a scale that was realistic, fundable and sustainable–pretty logical concerns for my role. However, as I started to raise these points, I was misheard again and again, and the first reaction of the organization’s Board of Directors was that “there is a personality conflict”. Calling in some mediation, I was advised to use a “softer approach”, “try to be deferential in manner” “just stroke his ego a little before making your points” which was then followed up with criticisms of “not looking like a leader”. It was years later that I realized that there was no air-space between the advices of “softer approach” and “looking like a leader”. To that Board no woman was ever going to look like a leader and anything I said to oppose their god-like artist-leader was going to be heard as the rantings of a hysterical female/underling. And as has happened to so many female leaders in the Arts, in time, this Catch-22 did result in a meltdown confirming their bias. And indeed that organization has beat up and spit out women at every level of management on a continuing basis without any real consequences for the leadership or governing Board.
How can we reverse this climate that limits women to the role of “muse” rather than acknowledges our equal capacity to be inspired and inspiring? Representation is everything. Kelly Thornton, Artistic Director of Toronto’s feminist Nightwood Theatre is quoted as saying, “Women need to take up more space.” We need to promote women leaders and foster the careers of female artists, composers and conductors.
In the meantime we can also collectively insist within our arts workplaces that they are workplaces governed by the same employment, human rights and code of basic human decency as rules behaviour everywhere else. This is not a “gray area”.