Illustration: Cathy Wilcox

Illustration: Cathy Wilcox

WOMEN are losing ground in the struggle to claim a greater share of creative leadership in Australian theatre, says a report that shows Australia's biggest theatre companies are among the least likely to hire female writers and directors.

Women represent about two-thirds of theatre general managers and have a strong presence on theatre boards but more than 30 years after concerted efforts began to level the playing field there are fewer female artistic directors and writers in the theatre than ever before. Women interviewed for the report said they were being held back by an almost ''feudal system of patronage'' where artistic directors acted ''like the monarch at the centre of their court''.

''It appears that there has, at best, been no progress over the decade since 2001, and there is evidence that the situation for women in creative leadership [in theatre] deteriorated over that time,'' said the authors of the Australia Council report, Associate Professor Elaine Lally from the University of Technology, Sydney and Professor Sarah Miller from the University of Wollongong.

The report, released today, was commissioned by the Australia Council after a tsunami of discontent broke over Belvoir St Theatre several years ago when it released a season program overwhelmingly dominated by male talent.

''[Artistic directors] say 'I only choose what's best'. So why is there a predominance of white, middle-class men?'' was a typical response from the 44 people surveyed for the report. ''It's embarrassing and protectionist and reeks of elitism.''

The report found that between 2001 and last year, only 21 per cent of the productions staged by Australia's eight biggest theatre companies had female writers, with last year the worst year since 2003. Only 25 er cent of productions had a female director over the same 11 years.

The researchers noted the number of female directors and writers hired by the major theatre companies had risen this year but the overall trend was negative.

Women had a better chance of rising to the top in smaller companies. Between 2001 and 2011, there were female playwrights in 37 per cent of productions, and a similar percentage of directors.

Giving artistic directors a licence to make decisions based solely on their artistic vision was one reason it was so difficult to change the gender inequity, the Australia Council's director of theatre, Lyn Wallis, said.

''The autonomous artistic director model makes it hard to break into a company because that person always says, 'It is about my taste, my vision','' Ms Wallis said.

The report found that Australian society was willing to embrace up-and-coming young male directors and writers, describing them as ''wunderkind'', ''hot'' and ''sexy'' but people lacked the language to describe up-and-coming female talent.

''I know of many young female directors who are as good as the young men we see making inroads in the industry,'' Ms Wallis said.