The vast majority of our society’s leaders are men— every president of the United States and very likely, many of our past bosses. This is also still the case in regional theater even though many in the field can easily think of a few female leaders at those larger regional theaters, like Diane Paulus, Lynn Meadow, and Molly Smith. There are as many women as men who graduate with advanced degrees in theater arts or theater management, and there are plenty of women employed in all ranks but the highest. Moreover, the majority of theater tickets are bought by women. But, for decades, women have held only about 25 percent of leadership positions in nonprofit regional theaters.

Sumru Erkut, Ph.D., senior research scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW), and Ineke Ceder, research associate, were commissioned by San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater to conduct a study to examine why women are underrepresented in theater leadership, and to identify what could be done to move toward gender parity. They employed a large-scale, multi-informant/ multimethod design and built on previous studies of women’s leadership.

The research showed that there are plenty of women in second-tier positions who aspire to reach the top. In fact, the figure below clearly shows the operation of a glass ceiling—a metaphoric image coined for the barriers facing women (and minorities) stuck at middle management when they can see the top but cannot get through. This finding seriously challenges the old adage that “there will be parity when there are enough qualified candidates,” because the data is evident that there are plenty of qualified female candidates.

The researchers were able to show that it is the leadership selection process that does not favor women. Familiarity, trust, and recognition of past experience have a strong and invisible pull during selection deliberations, leading to women’s disadvantage. Men have the advantage of familiarity: white men, in particular, have dominated the leadership for so long that they exemplify “what a leader looks like.” Selecting a leader is an arduous and expensive process that is inherently risky. The fear of making the “wrong” decision leads theater selection committees to play it safe by choosing what is familiar and staying away from what is unknown. However, familiarity is not an appropriate selection criterion. That tendency to implicitly trust who is familiar in a role has resulted in 68 percent of regional theater leaders being white men. People of color, especially women of color, have been virtually absent from leadership in the sample of regional nonprofit theaters studied.

Additionally, particularly in nonprofit regional theaters with large budgets (over $10 million), boards have selected male leaders who had not yet managed such a budget more frequently than they did women with similar credentials. Taking this risky decision, they trusted the potential of male candidates but not that of women.

Surprisingly, one of the survey findings indicated that nearly half of women artistic directors had founded the theater of which they were the leade.r Women created their own leadership opportunities—they were not being selected by committees for the top job. Despite the presence of many female founders, in the nonprofit regional theaters, founding experience was more frequently present in male leaders’ backgrounds than in female leaders’: the recognition of this formative credential was reserved more often for men.

The research showed that women only have an advantage over men during the selection process when the woman is already in a position just below the top when the theater has a leadership opening. In this situation, she is more likely to be promoted into the leadership spot than a man. Only then, familiarity works in a woman’s favor. Overall, the advantages men have over women—and women, occasionally, over men—boil down to trust: Search committees tend to trust candidates who seem familiar.

The study’s report includes recommendations for members of search committees on nonprofit regional theater boards—or any board. When it is time to hire a leader, boards should first examine their organization’s mission moving forward, and develop a gender and race-neutral job description that supports the mission. In order to maintain awareness of the unconscious, human tendency to go with the familiar, they should slow down the selection process and reflect on each step of decisions made. Each applicant should be scored on a list of basic competencies and asked identical questions, and the committee should then examine the evidence of how well each candidate’s qualifications fit the job requirements.

Even though nonprofit boards tend to be more gender-balanced than for-profit ones, deeply ingrained dynamics of leadership selection dominate both. It is the responsibility of board members to make sure that any qualified candidate has an opportunity to serve at the highest level. Indeed, to keep regional theater relevant for future generations, leadership models must change. Women’s tendency to lead relationally aligns with what the Hewlett Foundation4 calls “distributed leadership,” which the foundation identifies as Millennials’ preferred leadership style. Women (and people of color), who have so far been underrepresented in the top jobs, are equipped and positioned to introduce sustainable new models and bring that future to the stage successfully.

For more detailed findings and recommendations, please visit wcwonline.org/theaterleadership for a summary of this work.