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Amy Sanderson and Rachel Lythe smile in front of an ornate glass window.

International Women's Day

For International Women’s Day, we’re shining the spotlight on Rachel Lythe and Amy Sanderson; Leeds Heritage Theatres’ Interim Co-Executive Directors. With years in the industry and invaluable insights into the experience of womanhood at work, they’re sharing what they’ve learned and where they want to see things go next.

Written by Rachel Lythe and Amy Sanderson

Please note, this blog post contains discussions around sensitive topics.

Tell us a little bit about your role and how it’s changed during your time at Leeds Heritage Theatres (LHT).

Amy: My role was created as part of a move to pull our three venues together and find where we could work more effectively to promote them. It was a baptism of fire, and I started with a massive software project to put The Grand and The Varieties onto the same ticketing system and build a new website.

My role has evolved from being hands-on marketing to more strategic as part of a wider leadership team. I do miss the more hands-on elements, and most people know that I can happily get lost in data for an afternoon if given half the chance! To be honest, at the same time as my role has evolved, so has Marketing and Communications in the theatre and cinema world, largely due to the digital explosion and social media. However, nothing ever quite seems to disappear, more just gets added on! It’s exciting, but you must manage your own and others’ expectations of what can be achieved and learn what new things to adopt and what to leave for a while.

Rachel: I remember arriving at The Grand over 16 years ago to interview for my first ‘proper job’ in a theatre and being terrified that every door I walked through would lead me unwittingly to centre stage mid-performance! I became fascinated with the history of these amazing spaces, the stories of all those who worked here, and the incredible worlds created on and off-stage.

Amy Sanderson smiles in front of an ornate glass window.

Amy Sanderson

I’d previously led drama projects in a range of schools, museums and a prison and saw firsthand the transformational effect the arts and creativity could have on people’s wellbeing, confidence and skills. I was excited to have the freedom to establish a brand-new heritage learning programme at the theatre. I intended to come to The Grand for a year, set up the programme and move on once I got bored… but I’m still waiting for that day!

I loved my early days of delivering workshops, exhibitions and tours, and working with a fantastic creative team to launch our youth theatre, summer schools and more. Although I’m less hands-on now, as my role evolved to work at more of a strategic level as part of the senior leadership team, I now get to help drive the development of LHT. I also make sure I use every opportunity to shout about my (and the wider) incredible team, who work tirelessly to improve access to the arts and provide exceptional experiences for all to enjoy, learn and create together. I can’t wait to see how it develops further!

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

Amy: Watching the Sarah Everard documentary filled me with sadness and anger at both what happened to her and how much women have to adapt their behaviour in a way that men rarely consider. We’ve come a long way in the UK but will still have a long way to go and it’s far far worse for women in other countries across the world.

I feel sad that in many ways IWD is used as a marketing tool or to pay lip service to the real issues faced by women; whether that’s bodily autonomy, the gender pay gap, the motherhood penalty, the continued violence against women and girls, the mental load, the pitiful conviction statistics for sexual violence, FGM or just stepping back and recognising the different, gendered expectations we put on women from birth onwards.

Rachel: I think it’s a chance to pause and reflect on some of the incredible women who have fought for the freedoms I have today. Those who overcame challenges, demanded a voice, represented other groups that were silenced or forged pathways for fairer choices. I find it a helpful reminder to look around me and celebrate the inspirational women in my life today – those that are front and centre leading the way and those that are quietly just getting on with it. It’s also a chance to reflect on how much is still to be done. To put a spotlight on the daily discrimination faced by many, ongoing violence, lack of rights in many parts of the world, inequalities of health care, pay, gender bias, and more. I think it’s a call to action to not forget and to continue demanding progress.

Rachel Lythe smiles in front of an ornate glass window.

Rachel Lythe

Are there any inspirational women that come to mind to you in this industry? (Fictional women, industry leaders, colleagues, etc.)

Amy: I’ve been lucky to work with amazing women throughout my career, all of whom I have learned from and who have inspired me in different ways.

Rachel: So many. I’d struggle to name them all here! Everyone from my first boss who took a risk on me and endlessly encouraged me to never give up on what I wanted to do, to all the phenomenal artists, facilitators and leaders I’ve been able to work with and learn from.

I think the Leeds 5: a group of pioneering Black and Brown female cultural leaders in the city are phenomenal and the organisations they’ve driven and nurtured, the work they’re crafting, the pathways they carved for others to follow and the challenge they make to be bold and brave, in the face of much adversity, is inspirational.

You both have families as well as successful careers at LHT – what’s it like to juggle motherhood with a career?

Amy: I feel incredibly lucky that I have an equal and supportive partner in my husband as well as an employer who recognises the challenges parenthood brings, and have supported me (and Rachel) in working part-time. It can be difficult – the expectations don’t change and the workload stays much the same. However, I value that it allows me to pick the children up from school two days a week and also gives me much-needed headspace for six hours on a Friday when I don’t have to feel guilty about not giving either my children or work my full attention. I’m aware that being able to manage financially part-time is a huge privilege though and the juggle for many parents is far more difficult.

I think there’s also a wider issue to look at in our specific sector – whilst I can work part-time, many roles in a theatre or a cinema are most definitely not ‘standard office hours’, when most childcare is available, and require huge amounts of commitment at unsociable hours. Whilst I may sometimes have to work in the evening or respond to something urgent at a weekend, generally I can leave the office and get home in time for bedtime. Organisations like PiPA are doing a lot to try and break down some of the barriers being a parent or carer can bring and I think changes are happening across the sector to support people who wish to have a family and not have to change their career.

Rachel: I remember being warned that I’d always feel like I was failing at both, no matter what I achieved. I certainly felt that way at first, feeling like I could never fully commit at work or home, and every missed nursery pick-up or work event felt bigger than it was. Work had always been part of my identity before having a family, and suddenly I was thrown from the role of professional who knew what they were doing to mum who didn’t have a clue about anything!

But with the privileged opportunity to work part-time and flexibly, I’ve slowly learned not to be so hard on myself. I still get it wrong sometimes, but knowing that I can be around for some of those school pick-ups and day trips in the summer holidays balances with the freedom of having a space where I can take on a professional role that I’m passionate about and be someone other than mum for a bit!

How would you say the experience of being a woman in the industry has changed since you started?

Amy: I can only speak of my experience here, which will be very different from others because of my background and the path I took, but I think there has been a shift in women in more senior production roles, not just in Marketing, PR, Wardrobe or Admin, which was very much the case when I started.

Some things have changed for me but that might have as much to do with being older and wiser than changes for women – although I’d like to hope things are better. The #MeToo movement was a wake-up call across the whole entertainment industry, as well as every area of life. I’d like to think some of my early experiences as a young Marketing trainee wouldn’t happen these days, such as being called into the CEO’s office and being told not to “let myself be in a room alone with a performer”, but I know there’s still a way to go. CEOs and Trustees of a lot of arts organisations are still male-dominated – there is change happening but there are still a lot of ‘first female CEOs’ being announced in 2024 – not least at LHT!

Rachel: I think there have been some real positive changes where debates and conversations are finally taking place about previously taboo subjects such as miscarriages and baby loss, fertility treatment and menopause, and the significant effects these can have on women in the work environment. Whilst amid personal turmoil it’s hard to think clearly of what you need and what you should do from a work perspective, so with such policies and procedures being introduced, it just removes that additional anxiety and provides better guidance to managers for adjustments that could be made to support. The wider debates around equal pay have gained traction too, so I think there’s a better general awareness of what the issues are that need addressing. Whilst systems and structures still need further challenge and change, it’s been key people who have supported me throughout that have shaped my experience.

Rachel speaking at a training day, holding notes.

Rachel speaking at a company EDI training. Credit: Ant Robling

A close up of young people sat in theatre seats.

Credit: Kerry Maule

Where do you feel like the industry is moving for women? What do you think the next steps are?

Amy: Our sector tends to think of itself as inclusive, and in many ways it is, but there is still considerable inequality, particularly when it comes to the opportunities to artists creating work – whether that’s writing, directing, producing, choregraphing or designing. A 2021 survey on Women in Theatre found that the pandemic sharpened gender inequality in our sector and, according to a 2023 update, this has not improved over the past two years with over 60% of women in theatre considering leaving their work.

Childcare is a huge issue as is the perceived ‘risk’ of work written by women (the old chestnut that women will see work written by or about men but men think that work written by or about women is not for them). Many women quoted in the survey cite male-dominated leadership not supporting and allowing space or understanding for childcare needs (which at a societal level fall disproportionately on women) whether through workplace policies or Arts Council project funding.

Read the survey

Rachel: Conversations are shifting in the industry around flexible working and job shares are becoming more accepted, even in senior roles, which is great. There’s still a massive challenge around childcare costs to enable many women to return to work, and I think there’s much more to do around paternity leave. Whilst women leaders are rising, there’s still a lack of diverse voices being heard from many marginalised groups It’s important to keep striving to work in different ways, to challenge the barriers, invest in inclusive training programmes and keep the conversation going.

What’s been your biggest achievement in your time at LHT? 

Amy: I think it has to be creating the new brand and website for the organisation back in 2020 and then working together as a very small team to build and launch it during the pandemic. Having something positive to work on which looked to the future was something to cling to in a dark time.

Rachel: That’s a hard question! There are so many things I’m incredibly proud of but that’s due to the phenomenal work of the team. On a more personal note, I think it has to be the moment I saw an 11-year-old boy, who struggled to read and write and had been excluded from school, stand up at The Picture House at the end of our Rewind Remix project and read out a sentence that he had written himself about what he had learned and why he was proud of himself. That will always stay with me. It’s those moments that drive me when work feels a bit hard. The impact that the arts and creativity can have on transforming someone’s life.

And what’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced? 

Amy: Aside from the pandemic, I think the biggest challenge has been coming back to work after maternity leave. Particularly the first time, when I had also just lost my Mum. I felt completely adrift in who I was and what my purpose was and then I came back to work with a team who, whilst welcoming me back, had adapted to me not being there. I also had to adapt to part-time work and felt a tremendous amount of guilt about leaving my son for three days a week, as well as grieving for the sudden loss of my Mum. I think it took me a year to find my feet again, and to realise I still had a place at work and could still contribute.

Rachel: New into the job with little experience, being responsible for having the street dug up to get internet cables down into our basement education space and desperately trying to convince everyone it was worth it! Constantly battling imposture syndrome! Working during the pandemic, attempting to balance homeschooling, work, moving house and the uncertainty everyone was facing. But probably the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced is the loss of my second child, battling grief and returning to work – which I nearly didn’t. But I was blown away by the care and support of everyone around me at work, which carried me through when I couldn’t function and enabled me to relearn how to put one foot in front of the other.

Final thoughts: do you have any advice for young women and girls looking to come into this industry?

Amy: Find the women who are already here and speak with them. They will have fought battles already and can help you find your path. Recognise your worth and what you bring but also be willing to learn.

Rachel: Ask questions, learn from those around you, challenge stereotypes, surround yourself with good role models and don’t give up!