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It’s Time For Women to Lead (Guest Column)

Actors' Equity's work on harassment prevention goes hand in hand with our work to improve diversity within the theater industry.

A number of major regional theaters are changing artistic leaders at the moment. Over the last few months, that number has only grown as charges of sexual harassment and misconduct roil the industry. The two trends are linked — and make a call to action ever more critical.

In California, American Conservatory Theater recently made headlines after announcing that outgoing artistic director Carey Perloff would be replaced by Pam MacKinnon. The story was news for other reasons — MacKinnon’s unimpeachable qualifications — and because it is uncommon for a theater to replace a female artistic director with another qualified woman.

I hope for the day when announcements like this are no longer news.

Today the need for theaters to make sure that qualified women and people of color are given the opportunity to serve in leadership positions is more urgent than ever before. Since the New York Times ran its first story on Harvey Weinstein, a number of theaters across the country — notably including The Alley Theatre in Houston – have had leadership changes due to charges of misconduct.

At Actors’ Equity Association, we stepped up our work on harassment prevention two years ago and have been working on it ever since. Since the Weinstein story landed we’ve sent a message to all of our employers asking them to send us a copy of their harassment policies.

Incredibly, we heard from a disturbing number of employers who didn’t have a harassment policy, and had never before thought they needed one. The leaders of these organizations are well-meaning people. But in this case, they fell short. These were not isolated failures but something we heard from numerous employers. This is a systemic problem.

The lesson for us was clear — representation matters. Our work on harassment prevention goes hand in hand with our work to improve diversity within the theater industry.

What we need as an industry are leaders who bring a new perspective to running a theater. That means more women and people of color. There is no shortage of qualified leadership. Women make up nearly 60 percent of the staff “next in line” to take on major leadership positions, according to a 2015 Wellesley Centers for Women study of the League of Resident Theatres.

Equity isn’t in a position to tell a theater whom they should hire to be their next artistic director or their next executive director. But what we can say is that these companies shouldn’t be afraid to diversify their leadership. Since 2015, the top two leadership positions at Equity (Equity President Kate Shindle and myself) have been women with differing perspectives and experiences. That diversity is our strength.

I would note that when it comes to casting actors, many theater organizations have robust language in their Equity Contracts affirming their commitment to diversity and inclusion. I have heard many producers say at the bargaining table they know that those commitments are the right thing to do.

Now is the time for theaters everywhere to move beyond their contract language and to truly lead by example to ensure that qualified women and people of color are given a fair shot at these leadership positions.

We’ll be watching.

Mary McColl is the Executive Director of Actors’ Equity Association.

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