There’s work to be done, but as the country builds back from the pandemic the UK’s arts sector is continuing to actively support women in leadership roles. 

On International Women’s Day (8 March), that’s the message from Elspeth McBain, Chief Executive of Lighthouse, Poole’s centre for the arts. 

“My experience is that the arts sector actively supports women in leadership,” she says. “I have worked in some great women-lead teams, with clever and fabulous women – and I have never thought for one moment that my gender would be any type of barrier to success. I know that’s not the same for everyone though.” 

Elspeth, who took up her position in 2009, having previously held senior roles at the Southbank Centre and English National Opera, is passionate about her work and optimistic about the sector’s future. 

“I think that knowledge of and love for the arts, and an empathy and appreciation of all the roles and individuals who make the organisation sing are vital – it’s a real vocation, not a 9-to-5 job, and it takes resilience and tenacity as well as very good management skills.   

“Offering opportunities for up and coming leaders to learn how to lead is surely the responsibility of all leaders, regardless of gender. Inspiring people by making good decisions, taking the right level of risk, doing things well and having high standards is part and parcel of doing a good job.” 

With audiences eagerly returning to live performance – as seen by last week’s near sell-out run at Lighthouse of the hit musical Hairspray – Elspeth is relieved and very aware of lessons learned in the last two years. 

“Despite the uncertainty, fear and trepidation, the responsibility for not just surviving, but for surviving well sits with the leader of any organisation and I was determined that we could look back on this period of time and be confident we made good decisions,” she explains. 

“The pandemic has required a practical, clear response and a measured plan that all of the organisation can get behind. I took the decision very early on that we would do what we could do and not wallow in what we couldn’t. We have taken things one step at a time and tried to ensure that our team’s welfare has been a priority.  

“More than ever this situation has highlighted that leadership of a national arts organisation also brings with it a responsibility to support the sector, not only locally and regionally but nationally, and advocating for the arts sector at government level and talking to the national press has been a surprisingly positive process. 


Published 8 March 2022