“We all want the same thing: we all want to make the best art, to work in a decent environment.”Sophie Gilpin, SWAP’ra
SWAP’ra was established by five working artists in response to a collective frustration with the unconscious gender bias in the industry and to provide a supportive platform to effect positive change for women and parents in opera, not just in performance, but also leadership roles. The declared aim of the organisation is to foster an environment in which a female CEO, music director, artistic director, conductor, composer or librettist is no longer noteworthy.
When SWAP’ra co-founder, director Sophie Gilpin spoke to Music Works (Season 2 Episode 2.5) she covered some of the issues that women and parents face working in the classical music industry. One of the key messages she brought to the table was how important it is for everyone involved to have a stake in this and work together to create an environment in which it is possible to have a family and work, even in a difficult medium like opera where the hours militate against anyone with childcare commitments.
Sometimes it seems like a big ask, but she sees these essential conversations happening more and more with more small initiatives, more little step changes, but all of which add up to a movement in the right direction.
Of course, a lot of it goes back to traditional attitudes about women in the creative work space and how that is sometimes harder to tackle. It is generally understood that the industry has to be more representative, but that can lead to unhelpful tokenism which can in turn lead women to feel they are unfairly pitted against each other.
“There’s the men’s table [that] has space for one woman and…you know that…your gender is so present, and that you are being looked at as a female director, a female producer, a female conductor.”
The statistics are not always encouraging. The Arts Council’s diversity report last year shows that there are something like 32% of women employed across all roles in music (not counting freelancers) whereas across the arts as a whole the figure is 57%.
To challenge this, the gala that launched SWAP’ra at Opera Holland Park in 2018 used 150 music professionals: an all female orchestra, all female conductors, all female directors, all female state management team, all female repetiteurs and all female singers. The message was overt: “If anybody is in any doubt that the talent is out there, here’s 150 of us.”
But, while Sophie and SWAP’ra may feel militant about something that she believes matters deeply to the health of industry and everyone, male and female alike, employed within it, she ends on a positive note:
“The most important thing is that we want to have this conversation in a positive way. We want to be celebratory and we want to be supportive and we want to highlight all the things that are going really, really well.”
Things may be a long way from ideal, but with people like Sophie and organisations like SWAP’ra pushing for change, it will, it has to get better.