Ups and downs in swedish theatre

Regarding gender equality in the Swedish performing arts; successes line up alongside failures. The year 2009 brings us joy when we see the percentage of women as artistic director, while the acute shortage of women conductors causes us worry.

Ups and Downs in Swedish Gender Equality

In Sweden we are accustomed to hearing that we live in the world’s most “equal” nation. Unfortunately this isn’t entirely true. The World Economic Forum, the organization that measures gender equality in the nations of the world, passed the title “world champion” already three years ago to neighboring Norway. And since them we’ve been sliding steadily, year after year: in 2008 we took third place and in 2009, fourth.

Scendatabasen (The Stage Arts Data Base) is a living archive that documents theatre, dance, opera and performance in Sweden. We took a look at gender equality there.

Measured in numbers, Swedish performers are divided almost equally between men and women during the years 2007-2009. Large, demanding roles for women, central to the development of the plot, are still sought after by our actresses. The American cartoonist, Alison Bechdel, hits the problem elegantly on the head in her Bechdel Test. She asks: Are there women on the stage? Do they speak to each other? About something other then men? She underlines the fact that an equal number of women and men on the stage doesn’t necessarily mean that the production is “equal”.

We observe the same pattern when examining the number of employees at the Sweden’s thirty-four performing arts institutions during 2007. The percentage of women to men employed is exactly 50-50. If you look closer, you can see that men and women occupied different positions in the hierarchical structure. The administration was 71% women while roughly the same percentage – but this time for men – applied to artistic or managing directors. One hardly needs to mention the ocean of difference between these two categories when it comes to honor, praise, prestige, and – paychecks.


The male dominance of directorships at national and regional performing arts houses has been questioned and discussed. Collaborative action has been taken by The Swedish Union for Theatre, Artists and Media and the employers’ organization, Swedish Performing Arts. This has had visible effect. They started a leadership education for women that not only changed attitudes and raised competence, but actually created a situation in 2008-2009 in which women were not only accepted as directors of these institutions but were also welcomed. From 69% men in 2007 to exact equality 2009. 19 male directors and 19 female.

Worlds apart

Unfortunately there are still a large number of occupations in theatre houses categorically divided into either female occupations or male. It happens, but rarely, that you would encounter a man in the make-up department. Here the dominance of women is expressed as at least 80% during the years 2007 to 2009. The same three years showed a female dominance in costume workshops of 73% women.

One is led to suspect the existence of a glass ceiling between the positions of assistant director and director. What else could account for a relative absence of women from the director’s chair? In 2009, 73% of director’s assistants were women, but only 39% of directors. This constitutes a drop from the years 2007 and 2008.

Light design seems to be an occupation reserved for men. Men designed the lighting in 77 % of all stage productions in 2009, a percentage that has remained roughly equal since 2007.

Worst of all is the field of sound design where male dominance was 88% in 2007, 84% in 2008 and a whopping 90% in 2009.


The largest problems with male domination can be found in musical theatre and opera. And it has only been getting worse as years go by. Since 2007, women have been disappearing from leading positions.

In 2007 and 2008 a little over one hundred musical theatre or opera productions were produced in Sweden. Of these productions, 10% were in 2007, composed by women, while 8% had woman conductors. In 2008 only 4% were composed by women and the number conducted by women had also decreased to 4 percent.

In 2009 eighty-five musical theatre productions were produced. Women composers did at least account for some of these works, making up 17% of the total, but not a single work was conducted by a woman.

Such broad divergences are always detrimental to gender equality, no matter which sex is favored. The whole idea of gender equality is that an individual’s talent, desire and vision should determine his/her choice of occupation and possibility to advance in the field.

Vanja Hermele

The statistics for 2009 were taken from Scendatabasen in March 2010. Vanja Hermele is a gender studies scholar and a journalist. She has previously investigated equality in the fields of professional culture in the books Konsten så funkar det (inte), (Art, The way things (don’t) work), 2009, På spaning efter jämställdhet (In Search of Equality), 2008 and I väntan på vadå (Waiting for Who Knows)2007.

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