Hamida Ali – Equity – Keynote Speech

hamida-ali-700x455EquityHamida Ali from Equity

Equality in the Arts
Well thank you so much. Great to be here and thank you to Luke and the organisers for inviting Equity to come along and be a part of your event today. As has already been said, I’m the Equalities and Diversity Organiser for Equity and it is a new role. There have been colleagues doing lots of work within Equity on equality and diversity previously, but it is the first time that the union has dedicated a post, full-time to this area. And essentially my role is three-fold. Firstly to advise any member or any member of staff on Equality and Diversity issues. Secondly we have four equality committees around gender, ethnicity, disability and sexual orientation. My role is to be the secretary to those committees and to execute their agenda and to support and advise. And thirdly to lead on any equality related initiatives or campaigns.


As has already been said I’ve been in the role for six months. What have I been doing in all that time? Well hopefully I’ll come on to point to some of that work. But I’m really delighted to see that Equality in the Arts is first on the agenda for you event today. I think it really is one of the biggest issues facing the arts at the moment. And as Luke said, what I think is really interesting is how it is seen as a more mainstream (in inverted commas) debate and issue confronting the industry. I’m used to people like me, equalities officers talking about these issues and no-one else in that particular sector and I think it’s really heartening at least that more and more people are taking responsibility for dealing with this issue. Luke mentioned the response he had from somebody in relation to this event about how it has been talked about since 98, well I’m sure there are people in this room who have been talking about it since way before then. And I’ll touch again on that.


But I think it is great that we do continue to talk about it. Not enough has changed, but all the more reason that we need to keep focussed on these issues and make sure that they are on the forefront of peoples minds and that we do move forwards and see that progress. These are issues that do take unfortunately a lot of time to see that they sustainable change, but all the more reason to keep with that.


I thought I’d use my time just to focus a little on the state of the problem and some of the things we’re doing within Equity to contribute to that progress we all want to see.


So how bad are things? Well I think that’s part and parcel of the problem we actually don’t know. There’s not enough information out there. There’s not enough comprehensive data that’s systematically collected to tell us what our stages look like and in terms of Equity’s other work, our screens and airwaves. But I’ll come back to that.
There is some research that’s out there. It’s fairly thin on the ground but people occasionally do do partial snapshots on what they see on stage and so from what is out there we do know that one in three people you see onstage will be female. That Asian and South East Asian people in particular are under-represented amongst Black and Ethnic Minority People that we do see onstage and we do know that that of course is under-represented. I can’t be more specific necessarily because we don’t have enough data.

A piece of work that Act for Change did, who are campaigning for diversity on screen and stage found that when they tracked the diversity of what was onstage over Easter weekend this year, they picked a handful of theatres in London and across the country they found that 1 out of 326 actors was a physically disabled actor. And Drama UK in some research that they did found that life after 44 onstage was limited.


So, there are a range of issues when we talk about Equality and Diversity. We’ve talked about race and we’ve talked about disability – these issues are broad and across the spectrum. We know for example that equality legislation across the UK covers nine distinct areas. My work and the work that Equity is doing is looking across the board. And including one of those areas that’s not covered by the legislation which is social-economic group and class, which I’m sure we’ll all agree is a massive barrier to this industry.


So all those statistics that I presented, you all know that those are deeply un-reflective out there, and here in this area but also across the country and indeed of our society as well. And at Equity we are impatient and frustrated about that lack of progress. We talked about, briefly, how long these issues have been talked about and I found that one of our trustees handed me a copy of an Equity journal, it’s called the Equity magazine now but it was then called the Equity journal which was published in 1983 and it was about a conference which was held on what we used to describe as integrated casting and apparently, in there it said, that we first started talking about integrated casting in 1967. So certainly in Equity these issues have been talked about for the best part of 50 years. And this special edition of the Equity Journal was reporting on this conference, on this topic and it had a list of recommendations. When I read those recommendations we’re still talking essentially about the same thing and our policies have been talking about these issues for a very long time. And it just speaks for the fact that these are not new issues and what we have seen change, we need to see far more.


So what is Equity actually doing in this area? Well in June, Equity agreed a new policy in this area you’ll find it on our website – it’s the inclusive casting policy statement and it was led by our Minority Ethnic Members committee. They looked at our existing policy and said we really need to update this. It needs to reflect our modern day situation. In fact we had separate policy statements on ethnicity and disability in relation to inclusive casting and they couldn’t see the sense of that. They wanted to see one, modern, updated statement that reflected equality and diversity across the board. And indeed the equality committees worked together to update that policy. And now we talk in terms of inclusive casting which again reflects the age of our policy statement previously.


That policy has three central asks. Firstly it’s calling for more incidental portrayal. When I say that what I mean is we want to see more actors from a whole range of backgrounds and when they are onstage or onscreen they are not there because of who they are but because who they are is incidental to their characterisation. And we think that is one of the few ways we are going to see an increase in volume of people who are invisible at the moment.


Secondly we recognise that sometimes diversity is relevant to a particular role. And in those instances we would like to see more care and attention taken by creative leaders and casting directors to who they cast. And our deaf and disabled members committee, we have our vice-chair here Phoebe Kemp, who is actually responsible for what I call the triple lock in our second call when we’re asking for more care and attention because it is particularly relevant to the casting of disabled actors. And the committee in particular reflecting and representing the view of our disabled members are concerned with a trend that we’ve seen over a long period of time where increasingly where there are disabled roles it’s non-disabled actors who are often cast in those roles. So what we are calling for, is firstly in our triple-lock is actively seeking a disabled actor and an actor who matches that impairment where for example disability may be relevant to the role. We recognise that may not always be possible then secondly have a disabled actor who maybe doesn’t reflect that impairment but has the lived experience of being a disabled person to enhance the portrayal they bring to that role. And thirdly if that’s not possible to ensure that production is consulting in some way with an organisation or an individual who lives with that impairment who again can bring a real authenticity to the portrayal of that role. That’s the second area of the policy.


The third one is calling for all players in the industry, all venues, all employers to improve their equality practice across the board whether that’s in relation to their audiences, whether that’s in relation to their employment or whether that’s in relation to their casting which of course the rest of the policy statement talks about.
So that’s the breadth of the policy and indeed, really when we looked at the previous policy statement, the core of it is not much different from when we talked about it in the late sixties.


Luke mentioned briefly the statement that Equity made about the Roses Theatre, about the casting of Trevor Nunn’s production of the Wars of the Roses. So I’ll touch on that briefly. That was very much in the response to the views of our members who had contacted us when they had heard about this and as a union, it’s the work of our members who lead our work and the voice of the members that we seek to represent. And when members were contacting us in quite some numbers about this we felt that it was an opportune moment to reflect the new policy and to respond to their views. And I think what I would say about that is that we were very much talking from an industrial position and not an artistic one. We understand as a union that our responsibility is about the industrial interests of our members. The terms and conditions. Making sure that they are the best they can possibly be for all those working in the industry. And we’re very clear that when casting doesn’t reflect the diversity of our members, it disproportionately effects some of our members from certain groups that affects their work opportunities. So what we are saying is that inclusive casting is not coming from an artistic position we are coming from an industrial position. It is the equality and diversity implications that are from an industrial point of view. I’m happy to talk more about the Rose statement either during the break of the panel discussion later.


In relation to the policy the equality committees were really clear, they didn’t want this statement to just sit on the shelf, they wanted us to be active about it. I suppose the Rose statement is an example of that. But we are also still working on an active campaign just so that we ensure that these issues are at the forefront of people’s minds and that they are not an afterthought. And that they are not things that are thought about until its too late. We’re still exploring what that could look like but ultimately we believe that it’s not enough for the industry to keep talking about this issue we have to realise that collectively we need to make different decisions if we’re going to see a difference in what we see. So really just pushing the industry to do something different. We’re going to be working with Act for Change who I mentioned earlier, they’ve expressed and interest in working with us to highlight the statement. Obviously as a union we can’t impose that on anyone but simply to demonstrate an expression, an aspiration of what our members think should be possible and to talk to employers about it and see if they share those aspirations. We are keen to recognise good practice as well as the reverse and indeed we’re very conscious that practice isn’t sometimes necessarily improved when you clobber people over the head and we’re really very conscious of that and we want to really highlight those good examples and celebrate what is possible and not just the reverse. So we will be working on that over the coming months and hopefully you will see the benefits of that.

But how do we really track progress? This brings us back to the problem with data. Without a comprehensive picture of what the situation really looks like it’s really difficult to get a sense of whether things are changing or not. And are things going in the right direction or not. And that’s why last year Equity campaigned really hard, led again by our equality committees to push the Arts Council and indeed the broadcasters to start collecting this data more systematically so that we don’t have to rely on partial snapshots of data which can sometimes be misleading. You might be able to pick all sorts of holes in the statistics that I mentioned earlier and you’d be right to because they are only partial. We’re really keen that the industry is building up a bank of information that can demonstrate what’s really happening and happening over time. And we’re glad that the Arts Council have amended their annual survey, so from the end of this financial year the National Portfolio Organisations will be replying and responding not just on the diversity of their permanent and temporary staff but we’ll be able to tell from those returns what the diversity of the actors onstage also looks like which is great. We also know that the broadcasters are working together on what they can do in this area. So as a result we’re about to start a campaign with our members to really encourage them to support these initiatives so that when they are in a production from a National Portfolio Organisation and they’re handed an anonymous equality measuring form that they have the confidence and the reassurance to complete that form and make sure that the data is fed into that bigger picture which is important. So we’ll be really encouraging our members to support those initiatives. And we’ll be continuing to press the Arts Council and the Broadcasters to collect and to publish that data. Because only then will we truly be able to see if there’s a positive change taking place.


Lastly I wanted to highlight another campaign that Equity is supporting but didn’t start itself which is called Parents in Performing Arts. Started by Equity members and launched a couple of weeks ago to a packed out Young Vic. It’s really highlighting the difficulties with parents working in the industry. And given what we know about the difficulties with childcare provision generally whatever sector you work in. Obviously in our industry, given the long hours and the nature of the work really exacerbates the situation. One of the campaigners did a survey, quite off her own back. She surveyed up to 500 people asking parents what their experiences were. She found that 74% of the people she surveyed had to turn down work because of the restrictions of the childcare available and it’s really effecting not just existing parents, but those who are wanting to start a family and are starting to do that later in life because of their concerns about being able to stay in the industry. We think these are real issues of great concern. The campaign was launched two weeks ago and the Stage has certainly covered some of the support some of our creative leaders have put behind the campaign which is great. And they are very effectively already raising some of the issues that need to change and we will continue to support them in that campaign.


In closing I would just like to thank you all for putting this issue on the agenda and giving us the opportunity to talk to you about some of the work that we’re doing and looking forward to working with you in relation to that work and look forward to talking to you further about Equality in the Arts. Thank you so much.