Posted by: Amelia Burkley | January 30, 2020

Women in Theater: Leadership On and Off the Stage

Acting, singing, and dancing are all considered “feminine” activities and thus, careers in performance are considered female dominated. Those men who choose to pursue such a career will inevitably end up ridiculed and criticized for their lack of “masculinity” by those outside the field. However, the theater field itself treats men quite the opposite of what you would expect from a female dominated field. Our reading this past week would suggest that women would be considered superior to men in such careers, and thus they should hold more of the leadership positions.

However, this is not the case. In fact, it is because there are so many women in the field that the men have it easier. Women fight tooth and nail against hundreds, even thousands of other women for just a simple ensemble role in a production, and it may take them years to get that first professional role. On top of this, there are only one or two lead or supporting roles for women per show. Men, on the other hand, may only have to audition a couple of times before they get their first casting. It is not that they do not have competition, but that the competition is significantly less than that of women’s, and the amount of lead or supporting roles is at least double for men. This is apparent even at the college level, where here at CNU every single male identifying person has been cast in at least one mainstage production by sophomore year, but there are many female identifying people in the department (including myself) who have yet to be cast and plan to graduate next year.

Even in more apparent leadership positions in theater, there is a surprising lack of female representation. Last spring, I performed in CNU’s Female Composer’s Cabaret, for which all of the performers had to compile a list of songs from female musical theater composers that we wanted to perform. While we were researching, we found it quite difficult to find more than eight women who composed the score for a show, and even fewer who were both composer and lyricist. This was incredibly surprising to me, but it showed me just how important it was for us to perform the cabaret, and I was glad I was able to bring these incredible women to the spotlight.


  1. There is a lot to unpack here. It is extremely frustrating as a female performer (my background is in dance and cheerleading) to have to compete against mostly women, and get beaten out by men. While the performing arts are a little different than a corporate ladder, a lot of the same principles apply. In cheerleading and dance, it is important a lot of the time to make sure that there is at least one male performer in the choreography, because usually those are the ones strong enough to lift dancers and perform certain moves. Male performers are even sought after for their abilities. I was always told that men tumble and dance better than women, because they have more strength and capability. Whether or not that is actually true, it does determine how men are treated in dance and cheer. Still, that does not mean that women are not strong enough to do this, but usually it is a role given to the male performer (the question is then, “why?”).

    For the performing arts in general, it is quite annoying that some women will not be cast in a main stage production, where a man is more likely to. There are the reasons of, male actors being cast for male roles, and because statistically there are not as many men, then statistically more will be casted. On the other hand, women could always play male roles if they wanted, I don’t believe that a gender divide should exist, especially in theatre.

    Of all the reasons I could come to think of, play devils advocate for, or make sense of, I feel like it inevitably comes down to the fact that in any profession, men are favored. If it is a male-dominated profession, then men are preferred because that is the “norm.” In a female-dominated profession, men are STILL preferred, because then they are “special,” as there are not as many men. Either way, men seem to benefit, and are never left trying to solve and get out a Labyrinth. How nice.

  2. I personally do not have any experience in theatre, but I find this concept to be very interesting. After reading your post regarding women in theatre I realized how I have definitely usually connect women—instead of men—to the theatre. I feel as though people usually know how competitive that career is for women, but men are not often considered. Men are frequently in plays and musicals, but when people think of the competitiveness, they usually think of women.

    This is also very interesting to me because whenever I think about plays, I always consider Shakespeare. When his plays were originally being performed, men were cast in every role. It was normal and expected for men to dress as and play the role of women. This meant that they had to act feminine in order to play certain roles, and that was normal. This is interesting to me because of how the roles have shifted. Today, many men can face backlash for even considering an acting career and (while I don’t have a personal experience of this) I imagine many have quit acting because of the way others viewed them. This definitely has the potential to impact the amount of men in the field, while making it a bit easier for them to get hired.

    When considering women in acting, as soon as they could step into those roles on the stage they did. It was then “normal” for a woman to play the role of a woman instead of a man. This seemingly progressed throughout the years and women eventually were able to play the role of men. Women in theatre became more normalized—no matter the role—and men in theatre became few and far between. While there are definitely still men in the field, there are significantly more women that have to compete for parts. While this may make a career in theatre harder for women, it is also a great thing to see that a once male-dominated field has become welcoming towards all genders.

    Also, check out this awesome article I found about the “2:1 Problem” in theatre. Although it is from 2012, I find some of the information still useful.

  3. I also found this extremely frustrating as a performer. I was in show choir in middle and some of high school. In middle school the girls had to audition in order to join the choir and most didn’t make it until 8th grade. However, the boys didn’t even need to audition, they were just “handed” the spot if they wanted it. This also allowed them to gain more experience because they were able to do it for up to 3 years in a row. When I got to high school, the same thing happened. There was a freshman all girls choir, a sophomore and higher all girls choir, and a co-ed choir (the hardest to get into). While freshman girls were required to take the freshman choir, our male counterparts were able to begin directly in the highest choir and perform there for all 4 years. I found this to be very unfair because most of the time, the boys didn’t have experience in singing or dancing, but were still handed the spot because they are male.

    I was also a dancer throughout middle and high school. My favorite type of dance was tap. I really enjoyed the music and stories you could tell with your feet. I never realized, before this post, that many of the famous tap dancers are male. You hear of Fred Astaire, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Sandman Sims, and many others, but you rarely hear of women tap dancers. I wonder if the same sort of thought applies here, there are a surplus of women, so the men get the spotlight because that’s what people are more comfortable with. I am interested to see where this goes in the future. I never thought about the difficulty I would have, compared to a man, if I had pursued a career in the arts.

  4. I personally do not have a lot of experience with performing arts, but something that stuck out to me here was the idea of pitting women against women. I often think of women having to struggle against women to be seen as an equal and to have opportunities. What is really disheartening is also realizing that women are sometimes also fighting against other women and will beat others down to get through that matrix or to get that one spot for a woman instead of advocating for more spots. It’s hard though – I can’t honestly say that if I were in that situation that I wouldn’t also look out for myself first and foremost. This post really makes you think about how can women do a better job at being advocates for each other and being supporters for others while also fighting for those seats that women are getting more of and demanding more.

  5. This was very interesting to me because, although I do not have any theatre experience, I was a dancer for about 12 years of my life and it definitely was a big part of who I am. There are a couple of things I would like to address, beginning with the idea that men lose their masculinity when participating in the performing arts. Unfortunately, when I was younger, I definitely fell prey to the idea that it was abnormal for boys to be dancers because I was always taught that dancing came with femininity, so it would be difficult for boys to do. I have since learned that that is not the case, but I believed this for many years and truthfully I was never taught otherwise. It wasn’t until I had a very close friend of mine in middle school get the lead in a school play that I realized it was not strange for boys/men to participate in the performing arts. It is sad to me that this is such a widely believed prejudice because it makes it difficult for many men to properly express themselves and pursue their passions.

    Next, I want to address the competition between men and women in the performing arts field. Again speaking from personal experience, I competitively danced for about 5 to 6 years and every competition I participated in was co-ed. You would, obviously, believe that judging was based on skill and performance, clearly deciding which team, group, or individual was the best dancer, but this was not always the case. Since it is so rare for men to be competitive dancers, whenever there was a group of all boys also competing, they would always win. This always seemed a bit odd to me, but I was later told by one of my coaches that judges really look for diversity among teams, and since the percentage of male dancers was so low, they really admired when teams consisted of boys, therefore it would always give them an edge. I actually remember one time in particular when my coach was very discouraged because we attended a competition she thought we were guaranteed to win, but was later informed that a team of all boys would also be competing and she immediately lost all of her confidence. They did in fact beat us. I do find this unfortunate because I understand that it is important to encourage boys/men to do whatever they want to do, regardless of how “un-masculine” it may be, but it seems as though people tend to overcompensate for this fact.

    Lastly, I want to touch on what you found regarding how difficult it can be for women to obtain lead roles in the performing arts. This was something I had truthfully never thought about and I find very intriguing. A you stated, I assumed, as many others would, that women would actually prevail with leads since it is a typically “feminine” field, but it does make perfect sense that this makes it more difficult for women because the magnitude of competition. This actually really frustrated me because I feel like it emphasizes the idea, once again, that women “can’t win.” In fields dominated by men, women still are not chosen because it is not normal for women to be participating in such fields, but even when women are the majority they still struggle to be chosen over men. It gives a frustrating and discouraging message to girls, showing them that no matter what they want to pursue, male or female dominated, they are doing to struggle to thrive.

  6. As a former ballerina, I can definitely attest to the fact that men were able to be cast in different productions more easily. Especially in summer ballet intensives, men were often able to obtain a scholarship much more easily than women were able to. However, I do think that while men may have an easier time entering into the theater world, I think a lot of this comes down to what we are encouraging young folks when they are growing up. As a society, we need to be encouraging more men to pursue the arts to balance out the field, and encourage and provide more opportunities for women to be able to be leaders in the arts. I would be interested to find out how other countries deal with this issue, especially ones who place a higher priority on the arts as a whole. By providing more opportunities to showcase female composers, and directors, I think we will be able to begin to improve these numbers.

  7. I had friends that were in theater in high school. I remember tons of girls auditioning for the one or two lead roles in the plays while the theater teacher was desperately scrounging up boys in the school who were willing to be apart of the spring play. Other than my limited high school observations, I did not think that the same trend (less men, but more parts – more women, but less parts) continued into the ‘real world’. I knew about the Greeks not allowing women to perform and having men play the female roles instead, but I did not know parts of this old structure of theater still loomed today. As you said, this field is a case that goes against one of the readings in class that suggested that female-dominated fields will inevitably lead to more women in leadership positions within the practice.

    I was curious about the evolution of theater from Ancient Greece and found this article that gives a breif history of women in theater. The most interesting portion was specifically in the latter half of the 19th century in America and England. Women were more often put in masculine roles in comedies and paradies – the different dynamic this brought to the stage drew increasing attention to theater, popularizing it. This immediate jump into reversing gender stereotypes when women are seen on stage sounds counterintuitive. Yet it makes sense if the plays these women were playing in were meant to be satirical and funny. And even today, there are so very few successful female playwrights and directors in theater and movies/TV as we read from the Women’s Leadership Gap: only 17 percent of directors, producers, writers, etc. were in the top-grossing U.S. films in 2016. I think it’s an interesting outlier that such a female-saturated field is still dominated by males.

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