A new Masters programme is designed to get more women into top arts jobs. Caitlin Davies reports

Ruth Mackenzie, OBE, has always been the first woman in the job. Take Nottingham Playhouse, for example. It was established in 1948, but when Mackenzie became executive director in 1990 she was the first woman to run it. Mackenzie's experience is all too familiar, for while the cultural sector is dominated by women (around 80 per cent of the workforce) only 20 per cent are leaders.

But now City University has launched a postgraduate programme in Cultural Leadership designed to get more women into top posts. Billed as the first of its kind in the world, the course features a number of high profile tutors, including Mackenzie, who has been general director of Scottish Opera, artistic director of the Chichester Festival Theatre, and now general director of the Manchester International festival.

Mackenzie is a believer in the glass ceiling theory, that women get only so far on the career path. This may be because the majority of those who recruit and select are men, because equal opportunity policies might not work, or it could simply be confidence. "Men apply for jobs they are not sure that they can do, but women don't, they are more timid," says Mackenzie. "But how do you know if you can be a Chief Executive? It's not a job you can practice."

The Cultural Leadership Programme has the backing of the European Social Fund, which has provided scholarships for 40 women. It includes modules on working within organisations, personal assessment, mentoring and networking. It also addresses the challenges and obstructions to career progression, and how to balance home and work life. Mentors include Tony Hall, Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House, while guest speakers include Dawn Austwick, former Deputy Director of the British Museum.

Cultural sector covers all forms of dance, theatre, music, literature, museums and galleries, the performing and visual arts, and bodies associated with their development and funding. In the future architecture, advertising, fashion, and design may be added and the course will be open to men too. For according to the University of Chester, the sector as a whole lacks leaders and it has just launched a Masters in creative and cultural management to address a skills shortage.

City's postgraduate certificate takes one year, with nine monthly two-day workshops, the postgraduate diploma takes just over a year, including a fortnight's summer school and nine two-day workshops, and the Masters means a further 6-12 months of research.

The programme is aimed at people who already have some track record of working in the cultural sector, like Claire Whitaker, who is one of the first intakes. She is a director of the music production company Serious, which runs the London jazz festival. Whitaker, who doesn't have a degree, says the City course gives her an academic qualification as well as a work-based approach to learning.

She has finished a two-week summer school, which was a chance for some time out. "I've got two young children. It's good to take time to renew your skills but it's difficult getting space to do that. After the summer school I felt like my inbox had been emptied."

Another student is Deborah Anderson, head of communications for Tyne and Wear Museums, a group of 11 galleries and museums that receive 1.7 million visitors a year. The course appeals to her because it focuses on the cultural sector, not just business, which makes it unique. Like Whitaker, she also has a chance to focus on herself. With three children under six, she knows about losing confidence during maternity leave and returning to find old networks changed.

Anderson says leadership today is more about relationships and working in teams and "less about being that inspiring figurehead who is miles away from everyone else." Course tutor Chris Gordon, former chief executive of the English Regional Arts Board, agrees. He says female leadership is less aggressive and more consultative than that of men but is not rewarded in the UK.

So how did Mackenzie become a leader? "I'm bad at being told what to do," she laughs. "I am innately disobedient. At school I was always having detentions or sitting at the back of the class being naughty, that's quite good leadership preparation."

'Traditions take a long time to change'

Professor Sara Selwood, cultural analyst and editor of the journal Cultural Trends, is head of cultural policy and management at City University

If you look at national museums and galleries in the UK, you'll find there is not a single woman at the top. So obviously there are some problems. But behind the male leaders you'll often find a woman manager or head of administration, or a whole team of women. Why? What's the difference between being number two and number one? This is the sort of question the course will address.

In this country we're used to the leadership of white, middle class, Oxbridge, public school men. It's a very traditional kind of leadership and these traditions take a long time to change because they become ingrained. In the 21st century we need to challenge this and create a more diverse leadership.

There is also the fact that some women construct an internal glass ceiling and put the brakes on themselves, they don't imagine they can do the job when there is no good reason why they can't.

This is a postgraduate course, so it's academic, not touchy-feely. And unlike other leadership courses the exercises and essays and homework are based in the workplace. Students attend the course two days a month. Then they go back to the workplace and what they write - for example essays on strategic planning - are based on that. On other leadership courses people learn leadership and then find there is no room for them in their organisation. But these are women who like their organisations and want to move within them. CD