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Sunday 23 September 2018
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Cultural glass ceiling?

“Women above all, want a better life, dignity, and equality, and a better world in which their children will live.”

– Claudia Jones, TT national, political and cultural activist, founder of the Notting Hill Carnival

GENDER WAS on our minds this week. Celebrations for International Women’s Day continued a global discussion about gender imbalances at work, home, in the arts and various spheres of life. Film stars at the recently completed Oscars capitalised on the international interest in the awards to keep the focus on unfair work practices and predatory behaviour by men in the industry.

At home, while there seems to be a greater willingness to treat with issues like sexual harassment and equal work for equal pay, the discussion still needs better context.

For instance, authority figures maintain that they want to make the workplace more equitable for women. Yet, in 2018 we are still debating obvious solutions like whether we should legislate for organisations to provide childcare facilities at work, maternity leave for men and other measures to address the challenges of gender in our society.

My mother talks about the fact that she would take us to rehearsals with her. As we children sat in the Little Carib or other theatre space doing homework while the adults were on stage, it certainly never occurred to me that we were participants in a scene about the struggle of a single female parent to find balance in her life and give expression to her artistic passion. Unfortunately, such scenes still play out every day in our cultural sector. The failure of successive governments to provide social structures to address the challenges of gender contributes to the persistence of the glass ceiling. This concept was popularised in the 1980s as the result of an article in the Wall Street Journal – Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Can Women Reach the Top of America’s Largest Corporations?

The ceiling is defined as an “invisible but real barrier through which the next stage or level of advancement can be seen, but cannot be reached by a section of qualified and deserving employees.” It is recognised that this invisible barrier especially affects “women and members of minorities.”

In examining barriers to women in the arts, one writer points to assumptions including “women working in the arts have a partner to support them financially, are less ambitious career-wise, will leave the workforce when they have children, and are not as serious or as savvy about financial, technical and legal matters as their male counterparts.” Further, she asks “… why are so many directors men when a majority of women work in the arts in entry and middle management-level positions and have strong professional experience and education?” After reading this, I conducted a little informal survey of our major arts organisations, those related to Carnival, mas, calypso and pan, for example.

It struck me that in every instance, from pan to calypso, soca and chutney, all of them are run by men. Given time, I would have liked to find out what the leadership of Best Village groups, Carnival bands and J’Ouvert bands looks like.

Given time, I would have liked to analyse the history of Carnival and general arts leadership in this country to find out if gender could possibly explain the failings of so many of our cultural institutions.

Additionally, I would like to know whether women have been kept out of key roles by an entrenched boys club (which do exist), or do they prefer to avoid the stress of the limelight and remain in supportive positions? What would we find if we interrogated film, theatre or dance leadership in this country? In our complex society, what realities would the additional layers of colour and class reveal?

Of course, the status of women in the arts and entertainment is part of a wider socio-political and legal reality. This must take into account factors such as leadership by women in politics, an enabling labour environment and the tenacity of women to continue lobbying for removal of the glass ceiling.

As such, the views of feminist philosophers like Simone de Beauvoir remain disappointingly relevant. Still, it is worth closing this article with a famous de Beauvoir quote as she utters a challenge to women: “It is perfectly natural for the future woman to feel indignant at the limitations posed upon her by her sex. The real question is not why she should reject them: the problem is rather to understand why she accepts them.”

Dara Healy is a performance artist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN

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