If not a quota system, then what? With the Melbourne Theatre Company and Belvoir in its immediate sights, a panel of critical women’s voices spoke on Sunday of an “unmistakable intensity of anger” and a “tsunami of discontent” that the Australian theatre industry in general is sewn up by male directors and writers.

But the problem is more complex than first appears, as Sydney Opera House performing arts director Rachel Healy pointed out in her preliminary speech before  the Where Are The Women? debate as part of the annual Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture at Belvoir Street Theatre, where she was previously general manager for a decade.

Five women were all speaking on Belvoir’s darkened stage, in front of a pile of artfully constructed rubble, the stage set for a production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, for which actress Julie Forsyth as Winnie sits mired in mud up to her breasts in the first act then up to her neck in the second act; a woman bogged down by her circumstance.

Historian Gil Appleton bemoaned systemic “flavour of the month” funding from arts bodies that favoured women in the ’70s and ’80s and indigenous and multicultural works in more recent times, and also made the point women have done much better in Australian television than they have in theatre

But no one acknowledged in the ensuing discussion that comparing TV to theatre is problematic: TV is still a boys’ club, particularly among the commercial networks, where news, current affairs and sport are seen as masculine and arts and entertainment as feminine. That’s not a binary or neat division of labour that applies to theatre, even if issues of gender do play into notions of what constitutes artistic merit.

On Friday, The Australian cried self-evident sexism over its calculation showing that of 61 productions over the past 10 years at Belvoir, only eight had been directed by women, but Rachel Healy’s study of the company’s records showed that in Neil Armfield’s 16 years at the helm of Company B, 40 individual directors had presented work, of which one-third have been women.

“A third is not half, and it’s much lower than any of us are comfortable with,” Healy said, “but the more arresting aspect of the data is not that women have been consistently overlooked, but rather that so few directors have had more than one opportunity to create work for the company.”

Indeed, over 16 years, across 150 productions, three-quarters of the 40 directors featured in Company B’s annual season had presented work only once for the company, and of the remaining 10, only four directors presented worked more than twice. (Only one among those four was a female, incidentally, and that was Kate Gaul.)

Four great directors per generation was probably doing well, Healy noted, adding: “If anything, it probably points to a garbage skip at the back of the theatre overflowing with the corpses of young male hopefuls who all thought Company B Belvoir was the one.” The amusing aside got a small laugh from the crowd, then a pause, and then a much bigger laugh after the audience had a second to digest the comment.

But, of course, it was a glib aside and the problem of sexism and rejection for women writers and directors remains in Australian theatres, leaving “self-doubt as the constant companion” and the risk of an “unhealthy victim mentality”, as Bell Shakespeare associate artistic director Marion Potts pointed out.

Feminist Eva Cox brought some sobriety to proceedings when she was given the roving microphone and pointed out it was sometimes women in positions of power who push the dominant male culture, theatre included.

Yet quotas? None of the speakers thought affirmative action in Australian theatre was a good idea, given it might compromise artistry, and not one other specific idea was put forward to reverse the industry’s glaring sexism.

If anyone was thinking gender-specific mentoring in the theatres, no one was giving voice to the idea. Nor did anyone comment on the efficacy of appointing an equal opportunity officer, as recently occurred at the Melbourne Theatre Company. The ethereal seemed ascendant over the practical.

Winnie would have called it a happy day, as the earth gradually swallowed her.