IWD 2020 – interview with Professor Maggie Kinloch FRSE

March 8, 2020

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2020 we spoke to Maggie Kinloch, humanist celebrant and Chair of Humanist Society Scotland. Maggie worked as a theatre director for over 40 years and is Professor Emerita and former Deputy Principal of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. She has traveled the world teaching and observing theatre and theatre education, and was a founding director of the National Theatre of Scotland. Until recently she sat on the Boards of both the Scottish Funding Council and Creative Scotland. 

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “I am generation equality: realising women’s rights.” How do you think Humanist Society Scotland can help to realise women’s rights in Scotland? 

Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are at the heart of what we are about as humanists. I think our role is to highlight and stand against whatever we see in society that is not right and that oppresses women or strips them of their rights. We need to speak up and actively do something. We shouldn’t just sit there and do nothing – that would go totally against our principles. 

What have we done to support women and women’s equality? 

Women’s rights run through both our campaigning work and our work to create educational materials for children and young people. We were hugely involved in Scotland’s successful Equal Marriage Act that gave gay women (and men) the same right to legal marraiage as straight women. We are vocal in our support of reproduction rights through our support of campaigns like Abortion Rights and Back Off. And we always try to see the gendered angle in our other campaigns like our Last Rights campaign which supports the right to an assisted death in certain circumstances. We’ve just created some new education materials for use with young people in high school that we’re about to launch today, and they have a really interesting section on gender and equality. I think if we find ways to speak to young people in school about our support for women’s equality and rights, they start to understand it from an early age and they carry that message forward. 

I think interestingly of the 150 or so celebrants that we’ve got, more are women than men.  That’s really positive and  we must always keep an eye on that and make sure that we keep the balance by making ourselves as accessible as possible to women. 

I was thinking about that and one thing that struck me was that traditionally people have been married by men in churches, and humanist weddings have created a shift where suddenly more people are being married by women. How important do you think that it is that women are taking an active role in such important occasions in people’s lives in Scotland?

I think it’s tremendously important, just as it’s tremendously important that women take part in all areas of society and in all professions.  And of course, within some professions where it’s much more stereotypically male it’s much more difficult for women to find their way in – although progress is happening. But within humanism and our organisation there’s no barrier. And that’s the thing – where there’s a conscious barrier, we have to make sure that we do all that we can to see that barrier removed. But within Humanist Society Scotland there is no conscious barrier, there is no obvious barrier, which I think is why women think “Oh I can do that, there’s nothing there to stop me.” 

And the way that being a celebrant works helps.

Yes, it’s very flexible. Like a lot of my celebrant colleagues, I came into this work when I retired (I retired a little bit early) but a lot of our women celebrants have caring commitments – the work is so flexible that they are able to make that work for them. 

Do you think there’s anything that we could do in how we engage with celebrants to make it more inclusive? 

My own perspective is we do need to be more diverse in our celebrant body. That’s something that the Board and staff talk about a lot. But it’s not to do with gender, it’s to do with ethnicity, disability and class. We need to do better with that because if you look at us as a community we’re not the most diverse.  

I do a lot of same sex marriages and a lot of my colleagues say they don’t do very many. I think it’s because in my profile the first thing that I say is that I live with my wife, so I’m completely open about it and that attracts same sex couples. Probably half of my couples are same sex couples, and of that half, probably half of those are women. I’d say all of those female same sex couples have said to me how much they appreciate two things – firstly that it’s a woman that is marrying them, and secondly that it’s a gay woman that’s marrying them. When I ask them why that is important, they say, well we just don’t want to feel in any way judged on our wedding day. I’ll tell them that I can honestly promise that none of my colleagues would make them feel judged, as humanists it’s a completely open and respectful situation. But I totally get what they are saying, and I totally understand that. 

When I first became a celebrant, apart from one colleague who was openly gay, I wasn’t aware of any other gay celebrants. And there were about 120 of us at the time, and I thought are there only two of us that are gay? That can’ be right, statistically that can’t be right. But over the last few years there seem to be more openly gay celebrants. I think that’s how we start to attract a more diverse population of couples – if they see diversity in us. 

And bravery as well because I think when you do have an identity that’s othered to put it out there is an act of bravery.

If humanists can’t be brave, then we can’t be anything. We should be brave in everything that we do.

Speaking of bravery there’s a lot of hostility being aimed at the trans community at the moment. Is there room for us as humanists to be braver in their defence? 

It’s funny you should raise that because yesterday I married a couple at the sun went down on the edge of a loch. They’d eloped from mainland Europe – just the two of them. One of them was a trans woman and one of them identified as non-binary and uses the ‘they’ pronoun. It was a very beautiful ceremony. It was just the two of them, their best man, the photographer and myself.

This couple were so emotional throughout. They said afterwards that they’d come to Scotland because they wanted a humanist ceremony and they wanted to be married in nature and they knew that we had acres and acres of that. They said that they felt accepted throughout the ceremony. That was their right. Why should they not be accepted?

As an organisation we’re supportive of trans rights, feeding into the Gender Recognition Act consultation with guidance from the Equality Network for example, but do you think we could be stronger?

My take on life is that everything that we do, we could do better, so I think we’re not bad, but we could be better. One of the things that I’ve pushed since I became Chair is that I want us to be an organisation that places best practice at the very heart of everything that we do. So you’ve put your finger on an example, we could be better and we must always strive to be better and challenge each other.

How do you manage that relationship with our membership that could include people who don’t support trans rights, specifically trans rights? 

I’ve not met anywhere near all 15 thousand members, but certainly I’ve met a fair old number, all of whom would be utterly supportive of our positive stance on trans rights. I haven’t met anybody who has turned to me yet and said, this is all wrong and we need to think again. If they did, we would hold our ground. 

I remember in another role in another part of my life in senior management in a public institution, the press were going for us over a particular issue. I was speaking with one of my friends about it who is a leading press and marketing professional used to dealing with lots of difficult moments, and she said to me – Look, you’re going to get a kicking but you’re going to have to stand strong and let them kick you. Then they’ll get tired of kicking you. I think that’s true within our organisation. If we come to a moment like that, the trustees have to stand strong and say this is why we believe this and attacking us won’t change the direction that we’re moving in.  

That’s not to say that we don’t listen, because we do. And if somebody came up with a totally convincing argument then of course we’d listen. But there has to be a rational reason for us to listen to that and say, okay let’s take it on board. 

Have there been any inspirational women in your life?

When I was in first year in high school a wonderful woman came into my life who I will never forget to my dying day – Eleanor Nicholson was her name. She was a drama teacher and came out of retirement because her husband had died and I was lucky enough to get her as my teacher. The very first lesson that we had with her, she took us out into the playground with this chair and we had to stand on the chair for one minute and talk about something that we felt passionate about whilst the others heckled. I was quite a shy child and I thought, oh this is hell! Then it was my turn and I had to get up and the only thing that I knew anything about were my five big brothers, so I spoke about them. There was heckling, heckling, then they all quieted down and they all listened. I thought,  hhhmmm people are listening, I quite like that if I communicate well, people will listen. 

Did she recognise a talent in you?

Yes she did. There were four or five of us (all girls) who really enjoyed her classes, and every Friday at 4 o’clock she would take us to her house where we would read poetry and plays and have tea and cake. She encouraged us. I was the only one that subsequently went into theatre, but the others were academic high flyers and went on to have accomplished careers. 

It was Eleanor who first said that I should think about going to drama school. I didn’t know there was such a thing, I was going to go to university to study English, but instead I went to RSAMD as it was before it became the Conservatoire.  

So she was a pivotal woman in your life. 

She was key. Nothing that I have done in my professional life would have happened without Eleanor. Nothing. I would have gone to university and studied English. But she changed everything. You’re never really alone in theatre because it’s a collaborative art form, you can’t do it on your own. And ultimately that was completely the right direction for me.

And having five brothers you were obviously well trained in never being on your own and holding your ground.

That’s exactly right. I was never very good at being on my own until the last ten years because I’d never learned how to do it. But what I had learned to do was manage men very well because I’d had to learn that as a child. So that stood me in good stead for my career.

So you’ve had a career that’s spanned 40 years in theatre.

I know, where did the years go!

What changes did you see in that time? 

I was the youngest artistic director of a theatre company when I was thirty-two and some men in the profession found that quite difficult. I remember one male stage manager, he was a friend actually, he said to me, “Do you know that you’ve got a reputation in the industry for being really difficult to work with?” I was appalled. I didn’t think that about myself at all. When I asked why he said, “Well you know what you want and you insist on getting it.” I said, if I was a guy you would say that’s a great quality in me as an employer.

That was quite early on and that has changed a bit. I do think that, by and large, the younger men in the profession recognise that women are their equal. 

When I moved into senior management I was one of three women in a senior management team of eight, and on this particular day the other two women were off and something had occurred that senior management had to have an emergency meeting about. The boss was kind of het up, he was panicked about what had happened and he wanted urgent action, and I’m going to quote exactly what he said, “It’s time to get our cocks on the table.” 

I sat there and thought, did he just say that? I said, “Sorry, if what you mean is it’s time for straight talking and urgent action, I one hundred percent agree with you. But what you did say is entirely unacceptable.” There was moments silence then one of the other guys said, “Actually, Maggie’s right, that’s not on.” But what I found myself thinking was if I hadn’t said anything, would any of these guys have said anything? 

I had to speak up, as I’ve always spoken up, because I’m old enough and wise enough to have the confidence and courage to do it. But what if there was a young woman who was sitting there who didn’t have the courage to speak up? The cycle would have continued. I feel that as women we have to challenge, and that older women have to challenge more. But younger women have to have the confidence and courage as well. I know why they often don’t – they don’t because they are afraid for their careers, which I guess is all the more reason why older women have to do it. 

Things have changed but there is still behaviours that male colleagues can think are okay and they’re not.  And it’s often language, but it’s not exclusively language. 

If you were to give some words of advice to a young woman who wanted to follow your career path what would you say?

I worked in higher education, so often young women would to talk to me about career plans, and I would always say the same thing to them: you’re really talented and you’ve got everything that it takes to do what you want to do. But before you start it you have to know that you can’t take any shit. Never let anybody male (or female for that matter) put you down. Never let them gaslight you. Stand you ground. Keep your ears open, keep your mind open. Be prepared to be challenged and to be able to put forward your argument. But also, be prepared to shift ground if you feel that you’re wrong in your position. But don’t be held down. And don’t enter this profession if you’re not ready to take that on. 

The Arts have a reputation for being liberal and then you look at something like the Harvey Weinstein case in America where there was a lot of people not saying anything about very bad behaviour and treatment of women, and it makes you wonder. 

He was powerful and had money – that was what was going on. Behaviour like that always needs to be challenged. A whole new phenomenon has broken out in British theatre in and television the last two or three months – they’re employing people to work alongside the director whose job title is Intimacy Director. Their job is to work closely with the actors during sex scenes to make sure that it’s safe and they both feel secure. 

I find that fascinating. On one level of course it’s a good thing, let’s not in any way say that it’s not. However, in all of my directing career I would never have approached a sex scene without working really carefully with the actors beforehand. I’d tell them there is a sex scene long before we got into rehearsals. We’d talk through the things that they both needed to feel secure, we’d talk through how you respect each other in this. We’d talk through how they would stop a rehearsal if they felt uncomfortable. If it triggers anything in them, I’d make sure they knew who to talk to. 

I’ve always done that and I think many, many female directors have. But suddenly there is a need for an Intimacy Director and that suggests to me that there are directors who have not been sensitive to that and the odds are that they are mostly male.

It goes back to your point about always having best practice at the heart of everything you do, you already did this. Do you think you always worked that way because you could empathise with the female actors?

To some extent, but it wasn’t just the female actors I empathised with. I remember a show that was mainly a two-hander between a middle aged woman and a child actor of 11 who played her son. It’s a Sharman MacDonald’s play Shades and the relationship between the mother and son is particularly intimate. She’s a single mother, has been since the child was little, and sometimes their relationship is a little on the edge, it’s kind of uncomfortable at times. When we cast the child actors  I spoke to both mums and they read the play. And I talked to the parents about one scene in particular where the mother is preparing to go out for the night and she’s in this 1950s ballgown and there’s kind of a wrestling match on the bed between her and the child, and it’s just a wee bit hhmmm. So I had long private conversation with both mothers. Then I had long conversations with them and their sons who were playing the little boy, and then we had long conversations with them, their sons, and the actor who was playing the mother. In that case it was both the middle aged actor and the child that I had to work with to make sure that they felt safe. So sometimes it’s not about women, sometimes it’s a child, sometimes it’s a man. Everyone needs to be looked after.

Are people more likely to be openly out now in the theatre than at the start of your career?

Yes, definitely. And it’s wonderful! 

I remember when I was a teenager – knowing you were gay was terrifying. Just the thought of coming out. I grew up in a small town and the thought of coming out to anybody was terrifying. I remember seeing two girls at school who I don’t think were gay, but they were great friends and they were always together, and I watched other girls bully them and call them names. And to this day I still feel guilt that I didn’t protect them. But I was too frightened because then they would have turned on me. 

I don’t think that it’s like that to the same degree now. I think of course there must still be instances of that but I know that my great nieces who are 19 and 21, they talk about their friend groups and they say, “Oh he’s gay, she’s bi, they are straight.” Everybody’s friend group is mixed and everybody is aware of each other’s sexuality and gender identity. I think there’s a much safer world in that teenage community compared to when I was young. I do all these same sex weddings and often there will be lots of kids there, nephews and nieces, brothers and sisters, and they’re so completely cool about it. Their auntie is marrying a woman, their uncle is marrying a man and they don’t bat an eyelid. 

I think we’ve made massive progress, and now we have equal marriage. However we also have so called ‘strongman politicians’ all over the world and you can see the beginning of human rights being eroded and LGBT rights are human rights. I find it a worrying time because we have been making such fabulous progress, then suddenly you’re in this position when you realise that we can’t take anything for granted. 

So you Chair our Board, you sat on the Scottish Funding Council and Creative Scotland Boards until recently and many other Boards previous to that – do you think you bring a different perspective to these roles that maybe a man wouldn’t?

I think in every case there were three things. With the arts-based organisations I brought the fact that I was an artist and  practitioner so I have a really grassroots understanding of what an artist is dealing with. 

I was an international educator (I was on the Board of the European League of the Institute of the Arts) so I brought all of that. 

Certainly, being a woman was always important. I can’t think of any of those roles where there wasn’t a conversation about sexism or inclusion. And being a gay woman was important, as part of access and inclusion for example, there was always that perspective. 

I’m sure this is true of every Board member, but everything that I am, the composite of who I am, I bring to the work. And I’m sure that’s true of any woman who is a member of any Board because it is your life experience and your professional experience that you bring to it. 

Do you feel that as the gender balance has evened up the way that you have interacted on the Board changed?

I do. And whatever the subject that’s being discussed, you then get a much more balanced discussion. Whether it’s specifically to do with gender issues, or inclusion, or the budget it doesn’t matter, it’s just more balanced because you’ve got different genders sitting at the table.

And who do you think speaks more?

Well I can answer that – when I was head of the Masters degree at Central School in London in the mid-90s I had an MA student whose dissertation looked at devised theatre and she wanted to know if having a male or female director affected who spoke, and what that meant for the final product.  She just literally sat with a stopwatch and clicked when a guy started to speak, clicked it when he stopped, same for the women. What she found was men speak 80% of the time and women 20% of the time. And whether it was a male or female director didn’t affect that figure. In terms of the material that goes into the show, 80% probably comes from the guys in the group. Will that have changed? I don’t know for sure but my hunch is probably not very much.

Do you think that we teach girls to be too polite?

Well I don’t! I do think schools don’t really do that now, but within the family lots of people are still using language like, be a good girl, be a brave boy. Lots of parents have thank goodness moved away from that and some grandparents have come with them. But I think grandparents probably find it harder than parents, just generationally. 

And things like the marketing of toys –  all the pink fluffy things for girls and the battleships and stuff for boys. It’s just hellish, you walk into any toy shop and go, wow! It’s about letting them be who they are and wear what they want and play with what they want, and not continue to reinforce those limiting stereotypes. 

How important do you think it is for women to support one another?


You spoke earlier about the teacher who played a pivotal role in your life, how have you supported other women?

In my final job as Deputy Principal at the Royal Conservatoire I introduced a mentoring scheme. Not just for women but for all junior staff who wanted to be mentored by senior management.  

I mentored several young women who were brilliant, brilliant young woman and who have gone on to do great things. And at the National Theatre we introduced a shadowing scheme and a Junior Board. The Junior Board members used to come and attend the meetings and they were attached to each one of us to learn skills to sit on a  Board. 

Formally and informally I have always mentored young women. There’s a very successful woman director and when she was just starting out and she asked me to be her mentor. I was delighted to, and we meet every couple of months and have coffee and I support her and give her a wee steer. I also mentored a very successful male director who runs a building in Scotland. 

Women often feel they have to be the finished product – Is it quite powerful when you start talking to women about potential and telling them that potential is real?

I’ve seen women sit and cry when I talk about it. I’ll ask them why they’re crying and they’ll tell me that nobody has ever said that about them before. I’ll ask them if they think I’m right and they do have potential, and they’ll know they do. So I tell them to own it. Claim it. Don’t let anybody tell you different. 

What do you think you’ve done for future generations of women that you feel proud of?

Blimey! This sounds like a contradiction, but in a humble way I feel proud of my career. I’ve achieved a lot. Not just for me but for the organisations that I’ve worked for. I developed a reputation as somebody that was brought into an organisation when it needed change, as someone who could lead change effectively. 

I’m really proud of this: in everything that I ever did equality, inclusion and access was always at the heart of it. I formed an access, equality and inclusion committee at the Conservatoire made up of anybody that wanted to come – staff and students. I got money for it to fund equality projects. I feel really proud of how that thread has run through everything that I’ve done. 

I came out when I was in my 20s and I feel very proud of that because so many young students and artists – and not just young students and artists – who I’ve worked with came to me to talk about where they were at and their own identity.  I’m proud of that because you’ve got to be a role model, whether you like it or not, you’ve got to be. You’ve got to be brave and say, look this is who I am. My life didn’t fall apart. In fact, I’ve had a really productive life. I have a very happy life. My wife and I live in our house, with our dog and our cat. You just have to be who you are.

I know for a fact that if I hadn’t come out when I did, I don’t think that I’d be here today. I don’t think that I would be mentally well. How can you hide yourself? How can you live half a life? You can’t. You have to be who you are, you have to live the best you can and you have to brave, and you have to look after people. You have to be kind.

And you have to laugh a lot. 

Thank you for speaking to me today Maggie, it’s been a pleasure!

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