2013 - 2018

Project Directors: Sumru Erkut, Ph.D., Ineke Ceder

Funded by: Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, Valentine Foundation, Wellesley Centers for Women, and private donors

The Wellesley Centers for Women partnered with American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) to study gender equity in leadership opportunities in the nonprofit American theater.

To learn about the research findings, watch the video below, read the Executive Summary, or read the Full Report. For even more information, read recommendations based on the research findings for those aspiring to artistic or executive leadership in theaters and for trustees of theaters.

Women have never held more than 27% of leadership positions in American nonprofit theater. Why? In a field in which “representation” is important to the stories we present to the public, the persistent underrepresentation of female leadership is puzzling and problematic.

The 74 U.S. theaters registered with LORT (League of Resident Theatres) in the 2013-2014 season make up the universe of theaters that are the primary focus of this investigation. LORT is the largest professional theater association of its kind in the United States, with member theaters located in every major market in the US, including 29 states and the District of Columbia. While the research is an examination of leadership composition in theaters that are members of LORT, it is not an examination of LORT as a service organization. Rather the focus is on individual theaters.

In the nonprofit theater world, most companies operate under a dual leadership model – one for the artistic side and one for the executive/managerial side. There were only 15 women who served as artistic directors in the 74 LORT theaters at the time this study began in 2013-2014. The situation on the executive/managerial side of the theaters was better, but not much: there were 19 female leaders. With respect to racial diversity, there was only one female artistic director of color. For men of color, leadership representation was also bleak: there were five leaders on the artistic side. But men and women of color were completely absent in top leadership on the executive/managerial side of theaters.

The purpose of the project was to provide real data about pathways—and obstacles—to leadership, and to paint a clearer picture of professional development for those seeking leadership positions in the arts, particularly women and people of color. However, we believe that our findings will help level the field for all aspiring leaders.

The Research

Guided by A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff and Former Executive Director Ellen Richard, WCW Senior Scholar Sumru Erkut and Research Associate Ineke Ceder led a team composed of Amanda Richer, Betsy Starr, Laurel Wills, and student research interns to conduct a multi-method/multi-informant study designed to answer two research questions:

1. Why are there so few women in artistic and executive director positions?
2. What can be done to achieve greater diversity in theater leadership?

Searching for answers to these questions required an examination of the career development of women in theater and also the institutional factors related to how searches for leadership are conducted and finalized. The research led us to identify the ways in which artistic and executive directors were being selected. Based on these findings we formulated recommendations of how candidate evaluations could change to make the selection more gender-balanced.


The team conducted and analyzed 130 interviews with current and potential leaders in LORT and people involved in leadership searches. Additionally, two anonymous surveys were done: one with 998 stage director members of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC) and one with 333 operational managers in theater members of Theatre Communications Group (TCG) that have a budget of over $1 million. Both surveys included people in the LORT theaters and non-LORT theaters. The team did content analyses of the resumes and bios of around 300 theater professionals who were in leadership or in line for leadership (based on their position on the staff directory of their theater) at the 74 LORT theaters.


What drives and impedes the selection of diverse leaders: Executive Summary of Results and Recommendations

1. Familiarity and Trust

Unless a woman is well known in a hiring theater because she was employed there when a leadership position opened, Board selection committees, perhaps subconsciously, trust men to be better leadership candidates. Their trust is based on the stereotype of what a leader looks like in the regional theater field: white male. Men are also trusted and hired more often to run a higher-budget theater than they have had experience with than women are.

Confronting these subconscious biases and developing explicit selection criteria will help make the process more equitable.

2. Work-Life Balance

Building familiarity and visibility for becoming a valued leadership candidate in the theater field requires extensive travel and long irregular hours. This working style does not easily combine with family life. Our sample of leaders and people with ambition to become leaders felt they have to maintain silence on the impact of this work style on their family life. This silence stands in the way of a level field toward leadership and also leads to more women dropping out of the field.

Openly addressing childcare issues in the field will allow women and men with family responsibilities to access, remain, and progress in the field in ways similar to candidates without those external pulls.

3. Culture fit

Diversifying leadership will only succeed once the field is actively seeking and embracing diverse leaders before, during, and after they are hired.

Adjustments to the prevailing cultures of many theaters will need to be made so that diverse leaders can succeed. This can be done through consciousness-raising of employees and audiences, and through the visible support of the theater’s Board for its selected leader.

4. Mentorship/Sponsorship

The apprenticeship model of career progression is strong in the theater field. However, not many women mentors and mentors of color are present at the leadership level, and this slows diversification of the ultimate applicant pool.

The expansion of mentoring and sponsoring for aspiring leaders needs to be promoted and can start with candid conversations and targeted exposure to a wide variety of tasks and experiences.

5. Affordability

The combination of student loans for college or graduate degrees with the high cost of living in cities where most theaters are located slows access to the theater field for those with no independent means to support themselves through years of low wages while climbing the leadership ladder.

A jobs program initiative may help address accessibility of the field. Organized and focused conversations with state and federal government will be needed.


Extensive recommendations for increasing diversity in leadership are included in the executive summary. These recommendations are targeted at theaters and theater service organizations, search committees and search firms, aspiring leaders, and mentors. Specific recommendations for key audiences have been developed with input from experts. For aspiring artistic leaders and aspiring executive leaders, there are steps that can help diverse, ambitious theater professionals prepare for and progress to leadership. For the members of Boards of Trustees of theaters and other non-profits, recommendations are listed that will help them advise their selection committees such that the path to leadership is level for all ambitious and qualified people, regardless of their backgrounds.


Upon completion of the data collection and analysis, WCW and A.C.T. presented at the June 2016 TCG conference in Washington DC. As part of the dissemination initiatives, A.C.T. hosted the Women's Leadership Conference in August 2016—a convening to share the study findings and facilitate a dialogue about this issue with a diverse group of artistic, academic, and policy leaders. The goal of the convening was to formulate realistic, actionable recommendations to increase the number of diverse women in theater leadership. The recommendations from both the TCG conference and the A.C.T. convening are included in the final report. A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff and Associate Producer Erin Washington reported on the study at the T.C.G. Fall Forum In New York in October 2016.

An important initiative that grew out of this research was the Berkshire Leadership Summit in October 2017 hosted by the WAM Theatre, organized by Artistic Director Kristen Van Ginhoven. 

The Impact of the Research

The performing arts enhance how we view ourselves and our place in the world by giving voice and shape to diverse experiences, feelings, actions, and thoughts. Promoting women’s leadership in the arts will make the field more inclusive of diverse talents, broadening our overall vision. The scarcity of women in theater leadership has at least two interrelated ramifications. (1) Gender bias in employment has resulted in fewer women having visibility in theater arts. (2) The scarcity of women intensifies the view that women are an anomaly, or an afterthought, undervalued, and less legitimate. Erkut and Ceder undertook this research with the wish to increase the number, and hence visibility and legitimacy, of women in theater.

This project is relevant to the entire arts field by providing real data about the scarcity of female leaders, and of women and men of color, and a clearer understanding of career development.

We are grateful for the time many interviewees donated to this project and for the insights we gleaned from these conversations, and for many others who completed the anonymous surveys. The list of people who were instrumental in conducting this project is included in the full report.

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