Women are slowly making their way up in the world with things shifting and changing considerably over the years. The arts industry in particular is showing good signs. It was recently announced that 80% of this years National Arts Festival programme is written, created, directed or headlined by women.
“We can see that women leadership is very well alive in South Africa in the creative sector but it doesn’t mean that it is easy, it doesn’t mean that women have reached equal conditions for confidence, for connections. It doesn’t mean women are recognized and supported as agents of change as much as they should be,” says Marie Sachs in her opening speech to the roundtable.
“The truth is the African creative sector see women who are still confined within stereotypical female roles and safe places, they are still facing discrimination, sexual harassment, misconceptions about their abilities, they are still struggling to penetrate masculine networks of influence. They are still facing disproportionate domestic responsibilities combined with the very long hours that our industry demands and they are still facing, in a lot of African countries, social stigma,” she continues.
A roundtable presented by the Arterial Network brought together four participants, Jade Bowers, Lara Foot, Lliane Loots and Ernestine White, who are all from various creative disciplines, to speak on the challenges of being a leader in the cultural industry and to discuss a way forward.
The speakers confirmed Sachs’ speech, telling personal accounts and observations of the difficulties of reaching leadership positions in their sectors. These ranged from balancing motherhood with work, dealing with racial discrimination, difficulties accessing funding due to lack of confidence in female managers, being cast in stereotypical roles and a general lack of nuanced roles for women and people of colour, lack of female and black role models in early education, lack of trust and confidence in women as leaders and various other patriarchal boundaries imposed upon women in the workplace. “Women in power are critiqued harder and not allowed to fail. How can you reach for the stars if you’re not allowed to fail, if you can’t do a trial and error?” says Bowers.
“How would you encourage South African women in the creative sector to support each other more?” Sachs then asks the table.
“For me it’s also about not becoming hard in an environment that can be hard. Leadership is not always the grand narratives of our society […] leadership is also in the way in which we mentor and work with the people in our artwork. Its about hearing and seeing, and it’s a challenge because it’s easier sometimes to be autocratic,” offers Loots.
One of the methods of indirect leadership and empowerment considered was mentorship. Loots suggested that a powerful strategy would be to fund and formalise the idea of mentorship as a means of building women in the industry.
Another suggestion was in coming together as women in the industry.”What is a great start is this, that we are all in one room. How do we create more of this, where we can meet each other within all different sectors of arts as women? We have so many festivals in this country, that we could theoretically meet up twice [or] three times a year and collaborate and I think that would be a great way to start pushing and supporting other women in the industry,” suggested Bowers.
On an individual level, the speakers encourage women to persist, despite the challenges.
“Every day brings challenges of discrimination, and we learn to fob it off, in other words not to take any real notice,” says Foot. “I just constantly find myself manipulating the system and trying to find ways to get past perception… old old perceptions [that are] very difficult to change, and we need more disruption… to make change” adds Foot.
“Don’t wait for someone to open the door for you, bash the door down and find your own way to do it, because you can, and then the support will come,” saysLoots. “We have to get out of this idea of waiting to be rescued. Start small, and it grows”.
“Find those creative ways to do what it is you are passionate about, because it’s never going to be easy, and there’s never a right time, you just have to do it,”concludes White.