In late 2009, Company B Belvoir unveiled its 2010 season. So did the Melbourne Theatre Company. Belvoir’s season featured only one female playwright and one female director. The Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2010 season also featured only one female director.

In previous years, such a program might have attracted little more notice than the usual grumblings within the sector about boy’s clubs and a lack of diversity. But in 2009, matters came to a head. Female playwrights and directors started to speak out and to blog about the issue. There was, to use the metaphor that featured prominently at the time, a “tsunami of discontent” in the industry about the continuing lack of female representation in Australian theatre, which was crystallised in the 2009 PR disaster for Belvoir.

“Nobody wants programming really to be based on anything other than merit,” Belvoir’s much-loved artistic director Neil Armfield said at the time. The response underlined the difficulty many established figures in the industry faced coming to terms with the issue (writing in 2009, Alison Croggon called his response “patently inadequate.”) Indeed, such defences are all too common. The bland assertion of artistic meritocracy is a typical, if profoundly dispiriting, reaction by many confronted with the accusation that theatre programming — the theatre world in general, really — is s-xist and gender biased.

After the firestorm, Belvoir gave over its 2009 Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture to the issue. One of the outcomes of that discussion was the promise of more research into the issue by the Australia Council, with the council’s theatre board committing to fund research into the scale and scope of the diversity issue on Australian stages.

That research report, Women in Theatre, authored by academics Elaine Lally and Sarah Miller, was released this week. It describes the current state of play for women working in Australia’s main stage and small-to-medium theatre companies, and suggests some strategies to address what remains a significant imbalance.

The cold hard statistics speak volumes. The numbers assembled in the report tell us that theatre is still overwhelmingly male. Women may indeed stride across Australia’s main stages of Australia’s theatre, but they are not writing the lines or directing the performers. The report says that, for the eight major theatre companies, women are writing only 21% of productions and directing only 25%. Even if we consider productions with either a female writer or director, the figure is still only a relatively low 36%.

The figures are a little better in the small-to-medium sector, but they are not at parity. A total of 37% of productions have a female writer, 37% have a female director, and an encouraging 52% have one of either.

Not that it’s any better at board level. In a depressing corollary to the corporate sector from which theatre company directors are often drawn, the people choosing the artistic directors are themselves overwhelmingly male. Just one of the eight major theatre companies has a female chair, for instance, and board members are 59% male. Depressingly, if anything, the situation has been getting worse, rather than better. Theatrical diversity is as bad, or worse, now as it was in the 1980s.

What underlies this situation is complex, as the qualitative aspect of the Women in Theatre report makes clear. Insecure and precarious career paths, family-unfriendly work environments, low pay and a dearth of opportunities all play their part. So does the culture of creative leadership, which grants quasi-dictatorial powers to artistic directors to choose productions and favour collaborators. In a context where the normative standard of the next big thing is still a middle-class white man — ideally an attractive and fashionably bearded one — this has inevitable consequences for diversity on the stage and behind the scenes.

“The focus was on women, but really the factors were very complex,” Elaine Lally, an associate professor of cultural industries at the University of Technology Sydney, told Crikey. “We were trying to look at it not just from a single perspective. It’s everything from individual creative artists trying to make a living, trying to pay their rent and build their career, have kids and mortgages and those kind of things, right through to companies — was there a culture of producing particular kinds of work?”

Lally notes that while the initial media coverage of the report has focused on the creative dictatorship of artistic directors, “that’s just one part of it, and it’s things like the culture itself, and the focus on youth and masculinity and the hot young thing.”

Lally points out that while the arts are female-dominated in terms of overall employment, “the further up you go, the fewer women you tend to find.”

“It’s a problem of glass ceilings and sticky floors. Some of the areas that women go into, like education or the community arts sector, tend to be sticky floors, because you don’t move easily out of those sectors, you get locked in by that kind of background.” As a result, Lally says, these factors reinforce the society-wide problems of inadequate child-care and precarious working conditions. “The factors are interacting with each other, there’s not just one reason, there are several reasons and they mutually reinforce each other.”

Women in the sector echo this analysis. Playwright Van Badham relocated from Australia to the UK in 2001, because she was unable to get a gig within the Australian theatre industry. After gaining career experience in Britain, Badham returned to Australia last year to take up the position as Associate Artist (Writing) at the Malthouse Theatre. She thinks that changing her name from Vanessa to Van was the smartest career move she ever made.

“It’s a systemic problem,” Badham told Crikey. “This report should be on the front page of the Herald Sun and there should be discussion about it, because this is a demonstration of just how badly women get screwed if those protections aren’t in place … We got lazy, we thought it was all OK, and then we started to blame ourselves … I know that I’m speaking very generally, but that’s really the substance of the report.”

“Our society is founded on an inherited system of male privilege,” she argued. “Just because women can buy d-ldos online, it doesn’t actually change the fact that that’s a tradition that will revert to male dominance unless there’s an ongoing activist campaign and a vigilance for women’s inclusion and representation.”According to Badham, this gender disparity cannot only be attributed to disproportionate numbers of men in creative directorial roles, but also women’s sense of entitlement to these positions. This is something that has been confirmed by her experience at the Malthouse, where she says female playwrights often lack confidence in their abilities. “There becomes a skills gap because women are not getting the experience, because of a lack of a sense of entitlement … You’re considering two scripts, of course the young male playwright who’s got more experience is going to deliver something that’s got more programmable and therefore more viable, because he’s got more experience and he knows what he’s doing and he’s confident.”

Badham says the problem has reached the point that we need a policy intervention. She suggests that the Australia Council give every theatre company $30,000 to pay a female writer to be attached to the company, $12,500 to commission a new work by a female playwright, $150,000 as a production budget and $30,000 as a development budget. “If you put those resources into rectifying a gendered problem, they’ll come to fruition,” said Badham. “They won’t come to fruition in 12 months, but they’ll certainly come to fruition in 36.”

But as Melissa Gregg, a senior lecturer in the gender and cultural studies department at the University of Sydney, notes, these trends are not just limited to the Australian theatre.

The reasons for this are multiple and intertwined, says Gregg. “In creative industries the main issue is to do with funding. In a small art scene like Australia, there’s a lot of dependence on patronage, as is always the case with the arts,” she said. “When people are assessing funding they’re always thinking, ‘Well, how will I be assured of this being a success?’ And the best chance of success is prior success, and it’s very hard to get alloyed up if you’re starting out and there’s been an accumulation awarded to others. This is just a broader problem of ingrained structures of reward that have privileged men for many, many years.”

According to Gregg, this is bound up in issues surrounding the remuneration and status accorded to industries that have traditionally been designated as “women’s work”. “In order for you to have a chance to apply for funding in the first place, you need the time and the money to give you the time to do that. If women are concentrated in the sorts of roles that are poorly recognised financially, and they’re also coping with what we know are inequalities in other spheres of life like the home space, there’s not a lot of free time left to do the networking and to the grant applications that provide those initial opportunities.”

This is not just a problem that afflicts Australia, but affects creative industries across the globe. “The arts sector is so dependent on the after hours networking activities, and also anti-social hours of putting together productions in the first place, then it can be a disincentive for people who have family commitments, who can’t travel long distances and who can’t do those long hours,” said Gregg. “The extent to which you can sacrifice the amount of time required to get into the industry for writing scripts, for instance, if you don’t have a paid job during the day, they’re all structural impediments.”

According to Gregg, action needs to be taken on several levels to begin change. She points to academia as one sector that has made some positive steps, though not without reservation — academia hardly has an equal number of men and women in leadership roles. That said, “academia … has done some quite important measures to provide space for women to do research when child-rearing has taken them out of their research roles for some years.”

Writer and editor Sophie Cunningham delivered a keynote address at Melbourne Writer’s Festival last year surrounding these issues in the Australian literary scene. Cunningham was impressed by the report, largely because it confirmed suspicions long felt by many women within the arts community.

“I was struck by the fact that it talked about a lot of people they interviewed having an instinctive sense that things were getting slightly worse rather than better, and that that was demoralising,” Cunningham told Crikey. “Because I know that that was the kind of feeling I had which resulted in the talk I gave at the Melbourne Writers Festival. I suppose it was nice to be backed up with some information about that sense … It’s something a lot of people fight against, that sense of being demoralised.”

Cunningham is one of the founders of the Stella Prize, a women’s only literary prize (modelled on the UK’s Orange Prize) that was established last year in response to the fact that no female authors were shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. A large part of the Stellas’ aim is to promote and celebrate women’s writing in Australia. “We’re not naïve enough to argue that that in itself solves all the issues,” said Cunningham. “I think that the debate around the founding of the prize is as important as the prize existing. We’ve been really pleased that it’s made people talk about it and think about it … That’s the issue of mindfulness that the report talks about towards the end. I think that if we contribute to that, that in itself is something that we’ll be very proud to have been a part of.”

Cunningham argues that it essential for women to keep these debates going, in order to avoid what happened has happened in Australian theatre after measures taken in the ’80s. “The moment you stop being really vigilant then things slip backwards, so you’ve got to be ever vigilant. Just the fact that women feel they have more permission to talk about these things I do think is useful … there does seem to be people talking about these things more. That is useful.”

For its part, the Australia Council is taking the issue seriously. The council’s theatre director, Lyn Wallace, says that vigilance is critical. “I think that if there’s one thing the report shows, it’s that there’s no easy solution,” she told Crikey. “There’s no silver bullet, and there’s not going to be this point where we can relax, because as soon as you take your foot off the pedal, it falls off the agenda.”

Wallace argues that theatre companies themselves need to take the issue much more seriously, particularly at board level. “The boards need to tackle it at board level, because we do have a strong autonomous artistic leader model, and I’m not saying its a bad thing, but the boards of those organisations need to be involved in diversity, in setting targets for this.”

“So, if a program comes in from an artistic director and there’s only one woman, that’s actually a board issue,” said Wallace. “We need to get really comfortable with positive discrimination because it’s never going away.”