Sunday 25 August 2019

Society as a whole will suffer when the talents of half the population are ignored

Michelle Payne: 'It’s such a chauvinistic sport, I know some of the owners wanted to kick me off'
Michelle Payne: 'It’s such a chauvinistic sport, I know some of the owners wanted to kick me off'
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

'Get stuffed," jockey Michelle Payne told the doubters, galloping into the history books this week as the first female jockey to win Australia's Melbourne Cup.

Those two words reflect the barriers she faced from owners and trainers. Both Michelle and the horse she rode, Prince of Penzance, were rank outsiders. But she proved the sexists wrong.

Michelle is only the fourth woman to ride in the 155-year-old competition, and her win shows how perseverance, courage and hard work can pay off.

"It's such a chauvinistic sport, I know some of the owners wanted to kick me off," she said.

But she also acknowledged the support of fair-minded men - including the trainer - who gave her a chance.

It's not just in sport where doors are regularly slammed against women.

It happens in business and politics - although quotas are attempting to address the Dáil's imbalance.

It also happens in the arts, which lack the argument that women are weaker physically than men, an excuse advanced in sport.

Is it possible the gatekeepers to arts commissions believe the female mind is less able than the male's? And the female voice has less worth?

In general, those holding senior arts positions would be horrified to find themselves in Camp Misogyny. They'd insist they were committed to equality and diversity. But here's the problem. Some simply don't notice when the female perspective is missing from public discourse.

If its absence is remarked on, they retreat to the questionable defence that all their commissioning is based on merit. Nothing to do with flawed decision-making processes .

And so to the Abbey Theatre, which last week unveiled its 2016 programme marking the Easter Rising - an offering conspicuous by the almost total absence of the female voice.

It's all about the male experience. The male voice. And, ironically, the male interpretation of the female voice. What would Abbey co-founder Lady Gregory make of it?

A groundbreaking American social campaigner, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, active 100 or so years ago, wrote: "There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex. Might as well speak of a female liver."

Yet the female contribution continues to be resisted. The Abbey's lacklustre record on showcasing women writers implies we can't write and by extension can't think. One in 10 plays in its landmark 'Waking the Nation' season for 2016 is by a woman, and that's a monologue ('Me, Mollser') by actor and writer Ali White which is touring schools. Engagement with future audiences matters, of course, but so does a crack at the main Abbey stage for some of our talented female playwrights. They might as well be invisible. No wonder so many look to Britain and further afield for work.

In the past 50 years, just six plays by women from among 320 have been presented on the main Abbey stage, according to the 'Times Literary Supplement'. And three of those were by Marina Carr. So four female voices have been heard there in the past half century.

Other women's work is staged in the less risky space of the Peacock.

Jaki McCarrick, lauded for her play 'Belfast Girls' about five young women taking ship to Australia to escape the Great Famine - for which she had to look to Britain's National Theatre Studio for development - said: "There are a lot of female playwrights, it's just that many of us get our commissions and opportunities outside Ireland."

That's our loss - society as a whole suffers when half of the population's talents are ignored.

It's part of a general trend where female skills are valued below male, a practice reflected in salaries. Monday was annual Equal Pay Day, to highlight the gender gap in wages across the EU. In Ireland, women earn 14.4pc less than men on average, slightly better than the EU gap of 16.3pc but nothing to celebrate. The disparity occurs in all sectors and occupations.

Interventions in the arts are needed, and have been proven to work in other areas. Mentoring and development initiatives; encouragements to women to submit work; and, above all, commissions - a range of policies to ensure our voices are represented in a measurable way.

The ratios are better in many smaller theatre companies, where vigilance about diversity is exercised. But the Abbey board and management should hang their heads in shame at their failure to be seen to take a lead on this issue.

Our national theatre has a specific remit to set itself at the heart of debate. How is that possible when women are almost completely excluded from its major platform? The theatre has funding of €6.2m as part of a three-year programme from the Arts Council, and 'Waking the Nation' has grant aid from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

Taxes are raised irrespective of gender, so a pronounced and proven bias when it comes to spending them seems extraordinary.

In 1792, pioneering feminist thinker Mary Wollstonecraft (mother of 'Frankenstein' author Mary Shelley) wrote 'A Vindiciation of the Rights of Women', insisting women had the same ability to reason as men and deserved similar rights.

But she acknowledged - as did Michelle Payne in the aftermath of that Melbourne Cup win - that male help was needed, entreating men to "but generously snap our chains…"

More than 300 years on, the patriarchal structure remains entrenched. Progress is slow, suggesting a little less patience and a lot more readiness to tell the gatekeepers to get stuffed is needed. Especially when they benefit from State subsidies.

Irish Independent

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