A First Look at How Actors Equity Will Start to #ChangetheStage.

Nicole S. Smart

  • Director of Diversity, Actor's Equity Assoication

Actors’ Equity has a long history of promoting diversity and fostering inclusion within our community, and for decades we have been negotiating equal opportunity language into our contracts. Our recent, groundbreaking empirical study on hiring biases in the industry confirmed what many of us had long suspected: women and people of color are working less, and when they do work, they are making less money than Caucasian men. This data demands action, and as a result, we have made building a more inclusive workforce one of the three pillars of our Equity 2020 plan to create a more aggressive, inclusive and responsive union. The creation of my position as Director of Diversity is the first step in following through on this commitment for change in the industry.

With your blog this week in mind, I have to say that some skepticism, paired with an open and honest dialogue, isn’t a bad thing because it encourages everyone to engage in the conversation. Moving forward with our values built on transparency – through the release of our diversity report – and the commitment from the top down in making diversity and inclusion a core part of our mission, we are setting the stage to begin building a platform for engagement with everyone built on trust and accountability.

As a union, Actors’ Equity can’t mandate who should be cast or hired, but we can (and do) advocate for inclusion – and lead the rest of the industry towards greater inclusion and diversity within both our organization and the broader theatre community. My role in this respect is three-fold: empowering Actors and Stage Managers, bringing the discussion to everyone else from casting directors to writers to producers and holding our own organization to higher standards.

Hiring biases and the lack of equal pay has been a consistent topic and concern across industries for women and people of color. There is no question that there is a dire need for progressive changes, specifically within our industry. The issue we most need to concern ourselves with is not what has occurred, but how we lead the charge for a more diverse and inclusive workforce for our Actors and Stage Managers. Promoting diversity and inclusion is not just about workers’ rights; it’s about human rights, it makes better business sense across the board and it broadens the social impact of live theatre. I have championed diversity and inclusion throughout my career, and I am thrilled to lead the change of celebrating and promoting diversity and fostering inclusion for our Members and staff.

This Saturday marks the 54th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, which aimed to eliminate gender-based wage disparity. Our study shows that more than half a century later we are still falling short. This is not only an issue in our industry; it is an ongoing battle. For Actors and Stage Managers, disparity exists along a number of axes including the number of jobs offered to men vs. women and the contractual salary offered to each. Nationally, women are underrepresented in all Actor categories – i.e. principal in a play (women make up only 39.1% of contracts), principal in a musical (41%) and chorus (43%). Meanwhile, women who do find work are often hired at lower salaries. When it comes to transgender and gender non-conforming Actors, they are still fighting to be seen for trans/GNC roles.

In addition to gender, we are shining a spotlight on hiring patterns related to race and ethnic identification. To share just one shocking data point, Stage Managers are overwhelming Caucasian – 74% of all contracts went to Caucasian Stage Managers.

Our data on race and ethnicity was somewhat constrained by the categories Members have been offered for self-identification in the past. One of my first projects is working with our national Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Committee to redefine and broaden the options available, as well as working with our Membership at large to encourage them to self-identify – currently, 16% have not yet done so. There is an understandable hesitation on the part of some Members to go on record when it comes to self-identification in an industry where “ethnic ambiguity” can be a “special skill” on your résumé. This data – which the Union keeps confidential and does not share with potential employers – is essential in order to best serve our currently underserved populations.

We also recognize that hiring bias can occur across a variety of the eight protected categories such as age, disability, religion and veteran status, to name just a few. Each category requires its own strategy, and it is my hope that over time, we will be able to investigate and, where necessary, address bias in each of the protected areas.

There’s a lot of work to be done, and again, change won’t happen overnight. Our data, however, is a distinct starting point in moving forward. I am excited to partner with our Members and my colleagues within Equity and across the industry to positively change the narrative for diversity and inclusion.


Nicole S. Smart is the new Director of Diversity with Actor's Equity Association, who will be responsible for furthering the union’s mission for greater inclusion and diversity both within the organization and the broader theatre community. 

Ms. Smart previously served as the associate director of leadership development for the The National Collegiate Athletic Association, prior to working as the legal coordinator for the NFL’s Management Council. Throughout her 15-year professional career, she has also served in leadership roles to facilitate diversity and inclusion objectives for numerous non-profit associations.