Thursday, February 10, 2011

Theater, the Gender Imbalance, and Economics

If you go to opening-night parties at mid-sized theater companies, certain things are bound to happen. The show's director, or the theater's artistic director (often these are one and the same person) will make a toast. The members of the board of directors will schmooze with one another and make you feel like a bit of an interloper. A bevy of earnest young women in black cocktail dresses will serve the drinks, set up and break down the folding tables, and generally make sure that everything runs smoothly.

I say this affectionately, because sometimes I am one of those earnest young women. Several of my friends are on staff at the Cutting Ball Theater and because of this, when I attend their opening night galas, I feel somewhat like an honorary "Cutting Ball Girl." (Well, I am on their literary committee.) At the end of the Bone to Pick/Diadem party a few weeks ago, I ended up taking a photo of the cast and crew, because I was the only person there who didn't work on the show.

Here's the picture--I love how well it came out, with the deep rich colors. But, note the preponderance of females. All women, except for Rob there in the middle!

Similarly, last night, a friend of mine hooked me up with a gig volunteering at the opening night party of What We're Up Against, the latest play at the Magic Theatre. There were probably ten or twelve people working to make this party come off, and only two were male -- the rest were young women, volunteers or interns or staffers at the Magic.

In short, there is a heavy gender imbalance in the staff of nonprofit theater companies. You can also see this gender imbalance among actors: more women compete for fewer female roles.

Probably the most common explanation for this is that boys don't think it's cool to enjoy theater. Theater is "gay"; creative pursuits are not manly -- you've heard all of that before.

But today I found myself wondering if there is another explanation. It's still rooted in the different cultural expectations that our society has for different genders, but this time with an economic component. Namely, that women are more willing to work for low pay than men are, or that it is more socially acceptible for women to work for low pay.

The data bear this out. On OKCupid's fascinating statistics-based blog, they prove that a man who says he earns less than $40,000 a year gets next to no messages. Unfortunately, OKCupid didn't provide a similar chart for women, but they implied that women are much more reluctant to contact a low-earning man than men are to contact a low-earning woman.

Even though we live in a society where women are often more educated than men, and are encouraged to seek out interesting and well-paid careers, I feel that there is still a sense that it's OK for a woman's career to be less remunerative than a man's. After all, a woman who "marries well" still has the option of quitting work forever and pursuing those things that non-working women have always pursued -- art, volunteering, philanthropy. Last night I met one of the Magic Theater interns, and her husband who works in finance. I must admit I was rather jealous that she could pursue the arts full-time because she had a husband who could support her.

A man's career, though -- that's got to be lucrative. For him, money is a way of displaying status -- proving to the world just how much of a hard-working man he is -- in a way that it is not a status symbol for women.

One could also say that the arts are often thought of as frivolous, and society finds frivolity more acceptible in women than in men. A woman who, in order to pursue her artistic ambitions, scrapes together odd jobs and is always close to being broke, is an artistic free spirit. A man who does the same thing, in order to pursue his artistic ambitions, is a lazy slacker.

(This, despite the fact that it might actually be more expensive to be a woman than to be a man -- we're expected to have bigger wardrobes, to buy a wider range of cosmetics and beauty supplies, to pay for birth control pills each month...)

And, face it, we all know that nobody gets rich working as an entry-level staffer at a nonprofit theater -- and that's what really drives the men away. Even if a boy has managed to avoid falling for the "theater is gay" message, even if he loves the theater and was the star of his high school or college drama club, he will not consider theater as a viable career. He knows -- society has told him -- that he must "man up and get a real job."

And sometimes I wonder if the men were right. (Indeed, if you've noticed, I'm not doing internships or odd jobs in the theater -- I've had a regular nine-to-five office job ever since I left school.) I mean, yes, we want to work in the theater, but why should we be willing to accept such low pay?

Despite living in an era of feminism, we women are still trained to be polite, compliant, and service-oriented. We do make great staffers at opening-night parties -- we're smart, we work hard, we're capable of discussing Brecht or pouring a bottle of wine with equal aplomb. We put up with the low pay because we want to work in theater, and because our well-meaning liberal parents told us that we should follow our bliss and not let our gender hold us back. Well, that's what we're doing. Except that as other careers become more diverse and egalitarian and gender-balanced, theater is becoming less gender-balanced.

You see that these thoughts about gender inequality were provoked by my volunteering at the opening night party of What We're Up Against -- a world premiere play by Theresa Rebeck about sexism in the American workplace. I will be seeing the play in a few weeks, using the free ticket I received for helping out last night. The irony of all of this is not lost on me.

1 comment:

Raoul said...

And there won't be any marriages, and probably not even any passionate flings, between men and women involved in the arts any longer. Money IS sex if you're a straight guy these days. If it isn't, well, you'd better get used to a whole different set of biological urges...