What International Women’s Day means to Claire Walker & Hannah Essex

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2023, we asked Claire Walker & Hannah Essex, Co-CEOs of SOLT & UK Theatre, what IWD means to them, why female representation in the theatre industry is so crucial and how their leadership could impact women in the sector.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?
We have always thought of International Women’s Day as the perfect way to celebrate and promote amazing women within all the industries we have worked.

No matter the sector, we’ve always worked alongside inspiring women, and IWD is an opportunity to give them an enormous shout out as well as raising some other important issues.

Over your career, what is the most encouraging change you’ve seen for women in business?
The pay gap reporting has had a tremendous impact on women in business. It really shone a light on the fact that often women not only earned less than their male counterparts but were also far less likely to reach positions of power within a business, which meant a larger pay gap.

Although this was something many of us were aware of, to see the statistics meant businesses had to act. Personally, it was transformative for our careers and gave us the ability to ask for transparency around pay.

Are there any women, in the industry or otherwise that you’d like to shout out?
We have both been supported and mentored by Baroness Ruby MacGregor Smith – who was the first Asian woman to run a FTSE company. She’s a huge trailblazer in business who supports many other women already in or striving for leadership positions.

We have been so impressed by some of the amazing women we have met since taking the role in Theatre – to name just a few – Dame Rosemary Squire, Nica Burns, Kate Varah and our Presidents Stephanie Sirr MBE and Eleanor Lloyd, who have worked over many years to improve our sector for women.

Why is female representation in the theatre industry so crucial?
Women make up 52% of the population – and to have a thriving theatre sector with a growing audience – shows must represent the lives, hopes and fears of women. And while things have certainly improved over time, there is so much more to be done.

At SOLT and UK Theatre, we are proud to have so many powerful women making important decisions – whether that be the two of us, SOLT President Eleanor Lloyd or UK Theatre Joint President Stephanie Sirr MBE. But sadly, this is not generally the case throughout the industry as whole, and females are under-represented in high power positions within the theatre sector.

This is something we want to be responsible for changing in our roles as co-CEOs, which will hopefully trickle down into all areas of the industry – whether that be creating more diverse roles for women on stage or encouraging young girls to get into male-dominated areas of the industry.

How do you think your job share partnership could impact the way that women are supported in the theatre industry?
We believe that another way of working is possible at all levels, including the very top. We’ve always hoped that by working in this way we can inspire many others to think creatively about ways that they can work and live, so you don’t have to compromise your professional ambitions despite having a busy personal life, too – whether that be parenthood, caring responsibilities, a time-consuming hobby, or the ever-popular side-hustle.

What are you working on at the moment?
Our current focus in on maintaining the current rate of Theatre Tax Relief in the upcoming Budget. We are leading the call for the government to maintain the higher rate of tax relief for Theatres, which has been a lifeline for so many of our members who were and still are struggling out of the pandemic.

It is crucial to maintain the 50/45% rate to ensure the recovery of the theatre sector continues. To cut this would be premature, and local economies would likely suffer as a result, too.

Join our network of theatre professionals