Pay inequality: academy King Lears should value their Cordelias more

As women claim more space in Shakespeare, why aren’t universities casting against type and dealing with the gender pay gap? asks Liz Schafer

April 14, 2016
Nate Kitch illustration (14 April 2016)
Source: Nate Kitch

The tsunami of Shakespeare plays being put on this year to mark the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death is, inevitably, providing far more jobs for actors than actresses.

Two plays are, predictably, dominating the repertory. The first is the tale of two shrews – Hippolyta and Titania – tamed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The second is the great patriarchal behemoth King Lear. Both are full of supporting roles that could very easily be played by, or as, women but these roles are still routinely given to men.

However, Glenda Jackson’s Lear, to be unveiled at the Old Vic in October, is part of a current trend towards claiming more space in Shakespeare for women. Women have played Lear before, and women have directed Lear but the combination of Jackson and director Deborah Warner makes this production a remarkable prospect.

Another example of the trend is Katie Mitchell’s Ophelias Zimmer (Hamlet without the prince), to be staged at the Royal Court Theatre in May. New artistic director at the Globe, Emma Rice, has programmed Imogen instead of Cymbeline in September (Imogen, of course, being King Cymbeline’s calumnied daughter).

Michelle Terry is to play Henry V at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in June. And the artistic director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris, has committed to achieving 50/50 gender balance of living writers and directors by 2021 and is giving Tamsin Greig the role of Malvolia, rather than Malvolio, in Twelfth Night.

My hope is that claiming space for women in Shakespeare’s plays – written for all-male casts (although women did the laundry) – might inspire similar action in universities: institutions originally founded to educate all-male students (although women did the laundry) and which still conduct their major rite of passage, graduation, by requiring their graduands to dress as if they are extras in a Shakespeare production, wearing gowns based on garments worn by Tudor men.

- The gender pay gap: it’s not as simple as it looks, says Keith Cuthbertson

Crucially, in claiming more space for women in Shakespeare productions, it is necessary to contest traditional casting practices – which discriminate not only against women but against anyone who isn’t young, slim, white and willing to take their clothes off. I suggest that universities need to rethink the casting calls they themselves issue when recruiting, especially to senior positions. Furthermore, when they audition, they should ask themselves whether casting against type might broaden everyone’s horizons, improve the talent pool and even contribute towards fixing the gender pay gap (which, incidentally, also exists among actors).

Large UK companies are now being required to publish their gender pay gaps. But it is sobering to reflect that the gaps at universities have been published in Times Higher Education for years and it seems to have made little difference at some institutions.

Unfortunately, publishing gender pay gaps is only a very small step in the right direction. It makes employees aware of the problem and it makes them disgruntled. But the new legislation doesn’t require action plans for dealing with the gap and it doesn’t require explanations for why the gap exists and precisely how factors such as allowances, market supplements and part-time contracts are split between men and women.

In an academy of increasing fixed-term contracts, rubbish pensions, insulting pay offers and increased workloads entailed by, for example, more Saturday open days, we may well wonder how motivated women are likely to be in those higher education institutions where the gender pay gap is still woeful after so many years of being published.

Ultimately, if the King Lears of academia aren’t moved by natural justice to value their recalcitrant Cordelias more, they should reflect on the business case. If universities want to retain their crowd-drawing, highly performing stars, surely it is a good idea to make both women and men feel that talent and achievements, rather than gender, are the major considerations in determining their pay.

Liz Schafer is professor of drama and theatre studies at Royal Holloway, University of London and is the University and College Union’s equalities officer at Royal Holloway. She will be discussing her personal experiences of the gender pay gap at a fringe meeting at the UCU congress on 1 June 2016.

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