A female dancer in a dark green leotard jumps in the air, facing the camera, with her hands open by her sides in a powerful pose

International Women’s Day 2022

Today is International Women’s Day, a day marked around the world to celebrate women’s achievements and raise awareness about acting for women’s equality. This year’s theme is #BreakTheBias, with everyone encouraged to think and act on how they can break gender biases within their workplace, school, home and community.

The Royal Ballet School is passionate about creating an inclusive workplace that promotes and values diversity and is committed to creating an environment where every one of our employees can flourish. We are pleased to say that our Executive Leadership Team is split 50/50 male and female. We currently have a median gender pay gap of 3.6%, which is smaller than the current national average of 15.5%, however, we know that there is still work to do to ensure we create and maintain a truly equal, inclusive culture at the School.

We are fortunate to have so many inspiring women working at The Royal Ballet School with a wide range of skills and attributes, some who are just starting out in their careers and others who have a wealth of experience. We were delighted to have some of them share their thoughts on gender bias in the workplace and their own experiences. We spoke to Pippa Adamson, Chief Operating Officer, Gail Graves, Head of Degree Programme and Senior Teacher, Karen Sheriff, Head of Healthcare, Neve Webb, HR Coordinator, and Hannah Murray, PR, Comms and Marketing Apprentice.

What changes have you seen in terms of gender bias from when you started your career to now (whether in this workplace or others?)

Gender bias is still out there. I have had some great employers who haven’t seen my gender as an issue but have heard managers discuss gender, marital status, and children in a less than positive manner. “Banter” when I was younger was something I accepted but in hindsight, it wasn’t appropriate. I think the workplace is shifting and it is a good thing. The Arts is generally a more accepting and flexible industry and better for it.

Pippa Adamson

I’m a physio by trade and physiotherapy is quite female-dominated, but when you look at the leadership positions in elite sport, it’s more men. I attended the Sports Performance Summit recently and there were just a handful of women in a sea of men. I’m really proud to be where I am as a female in leadership in elite sport, and it’s still relatively rare, particularly as historically there was little flexibility in these roles – they typically involved a lot of travelling as well as working evenings and weekends, with no job-shares or flexibility. I’m proud that I have 4 children and am still within the industry even with the challenges that has posed.

I don’t think you can have the conversation about positive women leaders without talking about the need for fair pay and flexible working. I think there are some amazingly experienced women in the workforce but conditions need to be adaptable to allow them to balance their outside roles effectively. I am a mum of four young children and have to find a balance. As experiences make you who you are, this is relevant to who I am and how I work. Currently women are faced with fewer work options, either in pay or flexibility because they have less choice in the workplace than men. Having a work culture that employs, empowers and celebrates women is absolutely crucial.

Karen Sheriff

I have been a teacher for some 28 years and in my early career working in Further Education colleges, I had a more mixed team in terms of gender, particularly drama teachers who were often male. In my own team now, we have one male member of staff, the rest of the team are all female.

I feel there is still a way to go in terms of women gaining complete parity with men. It has improved but certainly in ballet has a way to go.

Gail Graves

Can you give any examples of how you’ve faced/overcome gender bias in your own career?

I can find challenges in traditionally male-dominated areas of my role such as maintenance and IT. I worked in mechanical engineering and IT before becoming an accountant and that was eye-opening. I don’t experience difficulties with my colleagues at The Royal Ballet School, which is great. We all have something to contribute and I am happy to ask when I don’t understand a technical point.

Having children was an eye opener. You really feel your gender and the working mother’s guilt is real. I can’t switch off from being a mother or from being a COO. I work hard to find a balance but occasionally the two clash.

Pippa Adamson

I’ve come across quite blatant gender bias in the past, and I’ve also seen subtle examples throughout my career. It undermines your confidence and is incredibly frustrating at times. I realised there have been meetings of male leaders where they don’t invite you in and you wonder if it’s because you’re a female. Often this is unconscious on their behalf. However, by staying in leadership roles and being the best leaders we can be, I hope that our knowledge and expertise is noticed above our gender. As females I think we definitely second guess ourselves a bit more than males. I have 20 years’ experience in different roles which is so valuable and I should have more confidence and remind myself that what I’ve led here at The Royal Ballet School, setting up the healthcare programme from scratch, is remarkable.

Karen Sheriff

I have found at points in my career having your voice heard by male members of staff has sometimes been an issue and that has felt somewhat biased, including on occasion in my current role. The ballet world is very male dominated in terms of artistic directors leading companies and this needs to change and the same for female choreographers. I do however try in my own practice to forward and champion women in the ballet world.

I have been persistent and never given up. I think being gently persuasive and championing women within the teaching I now do on the degree course has had a positive impact.

Gail Graves

Who were/are your role models in terms of career and breaking the bias (now or when you started out?)

I don’t have any particular role models. As a child of the Thatcher era, I saw a powerful woman running the country. Regardless of her politics or her methods, that made a lasting impression.

I have and do work with some great people. There are some women I really look up to who demonstrate wisdom, integrity and compassion. There are men that I look up to as well. It is about the character of the person.

My parents had ambitions for me, and I was made to believe I could do anything; I just had to work hard. My father was initially disappointed to have a daughter so he ensured I could fix cars, carry out basic electrics, paint, wallpaper and do DIY. I think he is over it now and we have some interesting discussions about the role of women in society.

Pippa Adamson

The Chief Exec of the CSP (Chartered Society of Physiotherapists) is a female, Karen Middleton. I saw her talk at a conference on leadership and that was really inspiring. She talked candidly about being a woman in leadership and the strengths that brings, as women are generally good at multitasking, juggling and problem-solving. I contacted her afterwards and met up with her to talk through how I was feeling as a leader in this role. She influenced me in a really positive way at a time when I needed confidence within my role, and she helped me to see myself as a leader less apologetically. 

There were also two female heads at Richmond Rugby Club where I previously worked, who showed me how it was possible to be fantastic leaders in sport, fun and extremely knowledgeable but still balance outside roles (only one was a mother but the other was an auntie and daughter and very family oriented, which was important to her).

In my experience, women within my industry who are already established have supported me, giving me confidence at times when I might need it. It’s interesting that when I think of the best managers I’ve had, all of them are women and I would say they’ve all influenced the sort of manager I want to be.

Karen Sheriff

I had a wonderful teacher at university who taught me in the 1980s, Professor Joan White, who was a wonderful and positive advocate for dance. She established GCSE dance and the A-Level, she always conducted herself with authority and knowledge, was gently persuasive and would never give up. When I told her that I had been appointed at The Royal Ballet School she said I am delighted for you and well deserved. This was an affirmation and I will always hold her in high esteem as a real advocate for women in dance.

Gail Graves

Have you come across gender bias in your work experience so far?

I haven’t had any experience of gender bias in my role or team. We are a female dominated team with a male manager who supports inclusion and diversity, which is great!

Neve Webb

When I was working as a waitress a few years ago, I did encounter some inappropriate and misogynistic comments from customers, colleagues and even management. These comments made me and others feel uncomfortable, which is not how anyone should feel in their workplace. While I didn’t at the time, I do feel it is critical to call people out when they are being derogatory, even if it wasn’t their intention to be offensive. We’ve come such a long way in breaking down gender biases in the workplace and I do feel very fortunate in the opportunities and experiences that I have available to me now. However, we can always do more and I feel that it is important that everyone feels accepted, valued and listened to within their work.

Hannah Murray

What are your hopes for your career in terms of breaking down gender bias?

Working in HR means equality and inclusivity are always at the forefront. We have come so far in creating an inclusive workplace, but there is always more work to be done! One of our aims in HR is to educate and help staff understand the importance of inclusivity and diversity at the workplace, I hope that the continuation of our regular training and updates we hold at the School will support staff with this.

One of my responsibilities within the team is supporting line managers’ recruitment projects. We have a blind shortlisting process at the School, and train staff on staying unbiased, however I hope to learn more about the different channels of advertising vacancies so that we can broaden our pool of candidates. 

Neve Webb

I hope that I am able to go forward in my career without gender discrimination having an impact on my progression. There are so many incredible women who have paved the way in order for my generation to have the chances that we do and I’ll always feel grateful that I am in such a privileged position. While there is still a lot that needs to be done in terms of breaking the bias, I personally feel optimistic about the future and motivated to work hard in order to achieve my future goals.

I feel that we all need to take individual responsibility in continuing to break the bias by actively working against discrimination today. In doing this, we can all help to create a more equal world where everyone has the same opportunities. I would definitely hope to see more inclusive and diverse workplaces in my future career.

Hannah Murray

Who are your role models in terms of career and breaking the bias?

There are so many influential females at The Royal Ballet School. Our ELT is made up of two males and two females. Carol (Dray, Commercial Director) and Pippa (Adamson, Chief Operating Officer) are great role models as women in senior positions.

Neve Webb

My mum has always been my biggest role model in every sense. She works as a primary school teacher, a job that she loves and works incredibly hard at. Her passion for her role has inspired me to choose a career that I genuinely care about and enjoy. The diligence and creativity that she puts into her work is also what I admire about her. She is definitely the hardest working person I know and she motivates me to pursue my own future goals. My mum has always taught me to value and accept everyone’s differences and I know that she passes these same values on to the children she teaches. I believe that my mum is constantly helping to break the bias by inspiring young minds to be inclusive and kind.

Hannah Murray

Find out more about International Women’s Day.