‘I’m not a gatekeeper, I’m a fangirl’: Scottish Women as Cultural Leaders

Katie Hart is a third year PhD student in the Theatre Studies department at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on the role that women play as cultural leaders in Scotland.

You can find her on Twitter @KHartResearch.


Hi, my name is Katie Hart and I am a PhD student in the Theatre Studies department at the University of Glasgow. I am really delighted to be able to have the opportunity to talk to you about my thesis, which focuses on the role that women play as cultural leaders in Scotland and explores how women’s cultural activity and national identity intersect. In this presentation I am going to borrow that subtheme for this showcase of People, Power and Place as a framework for discussing the main ideas at the heart of my project, so thank you to the organisers for choosing a subtheme that fits so beautifully with my research.

So, as I’ve said this project is about women’s cultural leadership in Scotland. Cultural activity is a key part of our understanding of national identity. Jen Harvie describes national identities as ‘staged’ and ‘culturally produced’. a view supported by Pfister and Hertel’s statement that national identity ‘emerges from, takes shape in, and is constantly defined and redefined in individual and collective performances’. While ‘performance’ has a broader meaning that can refer to elements of performativity in daily life, I am particularly drawn to onstage theatricality and ‘performance’ in the most literal sense. This is in line with Homi Bhabha’s theorizing ‘that the way a nation sees itself is tied up in the narratives a nation tells itself about itself, including both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of the telling’. Nadine Holdsworth furthers this by focusing specifically on theatre ‘as something intrinsically connected to the nation because it enhances ‘national’ life by providing a space for shared civil discourse, entertainment, creativity, pleasure and intellectual stimulation’. With this in mind, it Is important to consider who is leading cultural activity because those who are leading in those sectors are creating a narrative for Scotland. My reason for focusing on women is because of the wider issue of gender inequality in society, which makes it even more important to consider women’s role in influencing culture given that they are often marginalised in this sector and in other areas of public life.

There is some existing research into the issue of gender in Scottish theatre. In particular, Christine Hamilton’s two Where are the Women? reports have provided essential groundwork for this research. Hamilton carried out two separate studies, one in 2014/2015 and one in 2019/2020. These reports were based on a quantitative methodology wherein Hamilton, supported by a team of volunteers for the 2014/15 study and by Fraser White for 2019/20, went through a list of the shows produced in a given season and counted the number of women involved in a creative capacity in each production. The results of the 2014/15 study found that just ‘39% of the creative roles across all categories were undertaken by women’. In terms of leadership, ’38% of theatre companies had women in artistic leadership roles’, with four of the companies being led entirely by women. The 2019/20 study found that these figures had improved, with women now taking 48% of all creative roles, including 55% of artistic director roles.

As I have said, these two reports have been invaluable to my research. However, they left me with a few questions:

  1. Hamilton’s report shows that things are improving for women. Those numbers are definitely moving in the right di rection! But what is the story behind these numbers? What are the experiences of women in these roles? What are the barriers they face?
  2. Which women are succeeding? Hamilton’s report speaks about women as a homogenous group but women’s experiences are impacted by their race, class, age and other factors. I wanted to find out more about how these intersections impact women’s experiences in the industry.
  3. What do women do once they are in these positions? What kind of work do they create? And what can we learn about contemporary Scotland from that work.

I realized that the answers to some of these questions were never going to be answered by looking at quantitative data like that which Hamilton used. Instead, I decided to use interviews as my methodology, in order for me to have the chance to have more in depth discussions with a smaller number of people. Last summer, I carried out thirteen interviews with women who hold a variety of roles in the Scottish cultural industries. Some were Artistic Directors and Chief Execs, others worked as playwrights, directors and producers whilst a few worked in youth theatre and community arts. These conversations were really fruitful, and to be honest I am still in the process of teasing out the most useful information, but I did want to share a few of the key ideas that came through in these conversations:


So, thinking about this in terms of ‘people’, one of the recurring themes in my conversations with women about their experiences was the importance of community in the Scottish theatre industry. This quote from a playwright sums up the gist of this idea:

Because it’s a relatively small country, there is a very vibrant community. There’s an incredibly supportive theatre community and you know, that’s good and bad. Sometimes it can be claustrophobic, but I do think that the theatre practitioners feed off each other and are influenced by each other in a way that is really unifying

As this interviewee intimated, there are many for whom this sense of community is really positive. One of the playwrights I spoke to talked about how important the connections that you make with other artists can be in securing work:

It feels like [people you’ve worked with before] have got your back and that you know…if the right project lands…you’d be one of the top three names that they would suggest in meetings with the artistic directors and that is a glorious position to be in…working with people begets more work

This quote highlights some of the advantages of this community, but this idea that ‘working with people begets more work’ also has a negative side, wherein the people who are in this ‘community’ continue to get opportunities which makes it harder for new people to break in. And thinking about that question of ‘which women succeed?’, I argue in my thesis that it is often easiest for white, middle class, university educated women and that a lot of the time this inequality is upheld by the informal communities and networks like the one that this playwright is talking about. For example, a few of the women I spoke to discussed how the friends you meet at university or drama school go on to be important professional contacts but what does that mean for people who don’t have the opportunity to attend these institutions, that are deeply unequal in lots of different ways.

When I spoke to women who felt that they were maybe a little on the outside of these groups and communities, they demonstrated the negative aspects of this ‘community’ mentality. One of the theatre makers I spoke to discussed having a friend who was a successful theatre maker tell her to pitch her work to the Arches, which was a major venue in Glasgow at the time.

[He] would be like, you should speak to LJ at The Arches or speak to Jackie at the Arches.

She definitely wants to do this. And I’d be like, no, she wouldn’t because who am I? I’m some wee gadgie that like is one of a million, but to you because they’re your friend, like privilege is invisible to itself and in-groups are invisible to themselves…They didn’t see that it was a club…because they’re in the club

This quote raises the question – when does a network become a clique? And how do we tackle privilege when it can be hard to see that we have it? I am under no illusions that these issues are limited to the arts industries or to Scotland. This issue of networks, cliques and exclusion may seem like an inevitable part of working in any large industry, and they are, to an extent, unavoidable. However, at its heart, this is issue is about power, and the question of who holds that power in Scottish theatre is inextricably linked to ideas of privilege and inequality. I think, particularly within the context of arts leadership, it is important to unpick this notion of ‘community’, which can so often be used to describe the theatre industry, but which, as these conversations have demonstrated, can be more problematic than it seems at first glance. As one interviewee quipped, ‘they sort of feel like it’s a family and it’s like, I mean, it’s a family, but only because families are also sort of shit’.


This idea of networks and power dynamics feeds into larger questions of what leadership looks like in the Scottish cultural sector, and the important role of such leaders in creating opportunities for people. This is something that many of the women I spoke to seemed acutely aware of, in particular when it came to their own role as a leader. Many of them spoke about the importance of paving the way for others to succeed, their desire to lobby for change and to make the industry more accessible. But as I have already demonstrated, the subtle ways that inequality is upheld through the reliance on networking and informal relationships can complicate that. The idea that we are often blind to our own privileges was evident in some of the conversations I had with women about leadership.

One interviewee spoke about their experience of going to meet a prominent Artistic Director to discuss a potential project. When she arrived, he had changed the location of their meeting to a local café, could not remember why they were meeting despite the fact that he had been the one to instigate it, and she described feeling put on the spot by some of his questions. When she emailed him after the meeting to discuss some further details and arrange another meeting, she got no response. The interviewee described feeling like

To him…it was just like people meeting…he sees us as peers. And I see us as like a huge imbalance for a number of reasons.

This ‘huge imbalance’ was the most significant part of the story for me. It was clear that the artistic director in question had good intentions in meeting with this theatre maker but the implications of power and hierarchy within the conversation seemed invisible to them. As the same interviewee noted, people in leadership positions often

still see themselves as scrambling around and desperate and therefore not as people with power

This attitude was exemplified in a conversation I had with a female Artistic Director about her work. She talked about feeling shocked when people see her as someone with power

[someone] said I’m a gatekeeper. And I was like, people in my position are fangirls, I am nothing but a glorified, fangirl working for those who I hold in such high respect, like I am at their service

This is a nice sentiment, and it was clear throughout my conversation with this artistic director that she genuinely is a huge fan of the artists she works with and goes to a great deal of effort to develop and nurture these artists. However, it is possible to simultaneously be both a ‘fangirl’ and a gatekeeper, and much like the story from about the participant meeting with the prominent artistic director, this comment highlights the disparity in perception between those in positions of power and those who are not and although non-hierarchical structures can be a positive approach to working, the problem with failing to acknowledge power within the current system is that hierarchies undeniably exist, and we are limited to working within that hierarchical framework. On the surface, the ‘we’re all just artists talking about our work’ attitude may seem like a positive approach to leadership, a leader who can’t see their own privilege, and who still sees themselves as a ‘struggling artist’, is potentially a leader who will not use that privilege to benefit others. I am particularly interested in exploring this further within the context of women as cultural leaders. Women are undoubtedly disadvantaged within the arts but that does complicate their relationship to power in ways that can also be harmful to other women. I am interested in exploring further how women navigate their relationship to power in a hierarchy which often works against them even as they take on leadership positions, but which also relies on them to provide support and opportunities for other women.


Through looking at the issues around community and leadership, I am beginning to feel like I’m finding answers for these first two questions that I mentioned earlier. But what about this third question? Well, that’s where the relationship to place comes in.

As I have already discussed, there is a link between cultural activity and national identity, and people often relate to the place they live in through engaging in such activities. I am particularly interested in this in relation to Scottish identity because of the number of really significant political flashpoints that have happened in recent Scottish history. In particular, I am focusing on how women creatively responded to the 2014 independence referendum and the 2016 Brexit referendum. I’ve chosen these because I felt that they were moments when our national identity and sense of belonging were really at the forefront of public life.

I’m conscious of time, and this part of my PhD is still very much a work in progress so I just want to give a brief sense of the kind of things I’ve been considering. In terms of both indyref and Brexit, I am interested in how women have used creative work to represent Scotland’s past and understand Scotland’s Present.

In terms of Scotland’s past, I am exploring the trend of women in Scotland creating either original plays about Scotland’s past or adapting and canonical or traditional plays to offer a new, feminist perspective. This quote from one of the playwrights I spoke to explains a little bit about that trend. Given the important role that heritage plays in understandings of both national and cultural identity, an exploration of the ideas of nationhood and identity that are produced in these historical plays, particularly those both by and about Scottish women, is vital in understanding the stories that the Scottish people are telling about themselves on stage, and the implication this has for the women of Scotland and their relationship to national identity.

In terms of Scotland’s present, I think it is important to look at how cultural activity is used to locate Scotland within both the UK and the wider international arts community. In recent years, as Scotland has wrestled with its identity as part of the UK and Europe, and its desire to assert its identity as a nation. As this quote from a producer demonstrates, the women I spoke to had very emotional responses to questions about Brexit and indyref, and it was clear how much of their national identity was wrapped up in their beliefs about Scotland’s relationships with other countries. In my thesis, I will look at the work created by women in response to these events so as to better understand how these relationships with other countries impacts on our relationship with a Scottish identity.

So to wrap up, I believe that an exploration of the role that women play as cultural leaders in Scotland can offer vital new understanding of the relationship between cultural activity and national identity for women in Scotland. Through looking at the material I have gathered in interviews alongside analysis of creative work produced by women, my hope is that this project will allow a greater insight into the experience of women in the Scottish cultural sector. The existing research into gender equality in Scottish theatre has provided a useful starting point for this project, but I think it is essential for conversations around gender equality to move beyond asking how many women are in the room and more toward exploring what the experiences of women are once they are in these roles.