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Women need to actively fund each other’s work and stop thinking in terms of scarcity. There is more than enough to go around. We need to speak up. Whether its ballet or another cause, women should absolutely feel confident in challenging the status quo.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth Yntema.

Elizabeth Yntema is the President & Founder of the Dance Data Project®. She is a member of the Board of Trustees for WTTW/WFMT, the Advisory Board of the Trust for Public Land in Illinois and the Board of Directors of the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Liza was graduated from the University of Virginia in 1980 and is 1984 graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, where she was awarded the annual prize for Outstanding Contribution to Social Justice. Ms. Yntema is a past member of numerous organizations in the Chicagoland area, including the Joffrey Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance Company, Women’s Bar Association, Winnetka Board of the Northwestern Settlement House, the Children’s Home and Aid Society, and the Junior League of Chicago, where she was named as Volunteer of the Year for her work advocating for homeless women and children.

Named to the final full year training cohort of The Philanthropy Workshop (TPW) in 2018, Liza spent a year honing her skills as part of “the next generation of strategic philanthropists.” TPW is a global network of over 450 selected philanthropists, from 22 countries.

Ms. Yntema has underwritten ballets for Sacramento and Pacific Northwest Ballets, the Joffrey Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance Company and BalletX, including world premieres by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa (Mammatus) & Stephanie Martinez’s (Bliss!) She has also supported works by Penny Saunders, Robyn Minenko Williams, Amy Seiwert and Eva Stone, as well as Nicolas Blanc and Christopher Wheeldon. Liza was Lead Sponsor of Crystal Pite’s work Solo Echo as part of the celebration of the 40th Anniversary of Hubbard Street Dance Company.

In May 2018, American Ballet Theatre announced the launch of its ABT Women’s Movement, a multi-year initiative supporting the creation of new works by female choreographers for the company. Ms. Yntema, along with the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation and Rockefeller Brothers Fund, was an initial Principal Sponsor for this initiative and continues to support its development. Ms. Yntema recently joined the Boston Ballet’s multi-year initiative ChoreograpHER as a Lead Sponsor. Liza also actively supports the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s choreographic initiative for female students, New Voices.

Thank you so much for joining us Elizabeth! Can you tell us the “backstory” that brought you to this career path?

I am the product of generations of strong women. My mother was Senior Editor at Atlantic Monthly Little Brown, and I remember visiting her offices as a child. After graduating from University of Michigan Law School, I moved to Chicago, where I worked for a management labor firm. Taking time off from full time work, I spent a great deal of time volunteering, and moved on to more organized philanthropy.

As I looked around not for profit board rooms, I observed that almost all of the important positions, the C-Suite, higher paying jobs, are held by men. It turned into a sort-of “cubicles and windows” test. I would walk into the back offices/working areas of charities, and would discover rows of young women in little airless boxes. When I came across an office with a window, I found it was far more likely to be inhabited by a man. Finally, I would get to the big corner offices, and here the occupants are almost exclusively middle-aged, white men.

I advocate for women and girls in all aspects of my life and work, but I realized that while classical dance is a global, multi-billion a year industry with hundreds of thousands of girls & women heading to class each week, it was also amenable to reform. I have no interest in beating my head against a wall. I want to make real, lasting change, rapidly. With ballet — the timing was right thanks to the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements and with the scandals at the largest US ballet company, The New York City Ballet, I am familiar with the world of classical dance.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?

I think the most interesting story about DDP is how my team has pulled everything together, while working remotely, in such a short amount of time. The more I learn, the more I realize Dance Data Project® is upending how not for profits operate and charities are “supposed to be” run.

We will have produced 8 groundbreaking studies our first year, with a young team (oldest member besides me is mid 30s), dispersed throughout the US. All but my Research Director have other “gigs.” When senior fundraising professionals hear that DDP staff consultants are located in: Seattle, New York, Florida, Nashville, Utah, Chicago and its suburbs, their jaws hang open. However, I recently spoke with Jeremy Edwards, Senior Associate Dean, Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago. He also works as a consultant for not-for-profits seeking transformational change. When I described how my team works and traditional fundraisers’ skepticism, he laughed and said that this is how all successful not-for-profits will be run in the future, as it eliminates excess overhead. As I said to him, “we don’t have meetings.”

Picture us in the Summer of 2018: My first hire was off pursuing a career as a consultant in New York City, but still “in the game” and helping us move beyond a data base to a public presence. Her intern, my now Research Director, had just graduated from university, and was pitching in part time, remotely from a small city in France where she taught school. My website designer is in the city, and his graphics wizard is on the West Coast. My amazing administrative assistant, also part time, was holding the fort back home while I was traveling. Committed to hiking the Northern Route of the Camino De Santiago, I ended up with my computer in my backpack, navigating tiny village to even smaller “not really there” places with super sketchy internet. So, everyone was giving feedback and editing from wildly different time zones. Yet, working together, and adjusting for schedules, we produced a gorgeous website featuring important content. DIY in the best possible way. Experimental, kind of out there, but it works.

Can you share a story about the funniest or most interesting mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

In terms of volunteering, it was not continuing to ask questions. A while ago, I was raising money for a gala and was asked to pitch a major donor for a big gift. I practically had my hair lit on fire, as the family had pledged $500,000 in non-specific operating support. The development director chose not to share this with me. I learned then and there to keep asking questions. Women tend to worry about being annoying, but when you are advocating for anything, whether that be a cause or an event, keep probing…

Ok let’s jump to the main focus of our interview. Even in 2019, women still earn about 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. Can you explain three of the main factors that are causing the wage gap?

That is interesting, because our research has found that in the world of ballet, if a woman gets to be an artistic director at all (and it’s still very rare), she was paid $.62 on the dollar for her male counterpart in 2016 and $.68 in 2017. Anecdotal research from our Listening Tour shows that female choreographers and teachers are paid far less than their male counterparts.

As for the reason, ballet is one of the more retrograde of the performing arts, so people don’t give it much thought. It is also peculiar — ballet is an art in which women represent 70% of the audience and the donor base, and outnumber boys 20/1, at least at the lower levels of dance schools, where male students get the best scholarships. Women aren’t encouraged to speak up in ballet, nor are they taught to dream past their performing days. The old adage is true, “Women become teachers, men become directors.” The result? Approximately 80% of ballets performed by the fifty largest ballet companies in both the previous and current seasons were choreographed by men. During the 2019–2020 season, the biggest, most prestigious commissions — those for new full-length main stage ballets — were 100% awarded to men. (Dance Data Project®, First Look, May 2019)

As the great Geena Davis says, (Geena Davis Institute) you have to see it to imagine it. So DDP pushes dance journalists and magazines, as well as ballet companies, festivals and competitions, to visually showcase women who command a room. Ballet is just the tip of the iceberg, though. I think most people would be shocked at the massive gender gap in leadership opportunities across classical music, opera, and museums. The arts in general just haven’t received the scrutiny they deserve. Part of our mission is to make donors, ticket buyers, funders, and the press pay attention.

Secondly, ballet teaches obedience, submission. My team hears over and over again, that women aren’t as forceful in pushing their own work forward. Women in ballet know that if they speak up, they can be replaced easily. Not so for the boys, who, if they show talent, are placed on a “glass escalator” with rich scholarships, per diems, as well as opportunities to choreograph. One of our most recent research publications is an examination of resident choreographers. We looked globally, but in the US alone, there is only 1 women resident choreographer among the 25 largest ballet companies. Not surprisingly, she was appointed by a female artistic director, Victoria Morgan of the Cincinnati Ballet.

Thirdly, there seems to be an extraordinary disconnect on the part of individuals and foundations who fund U.S. ballet companies. No one is connecting the dots between declining and aging audiences and the fact that millennials don’t see themselves or their experiences on the stage. I believe that is why only 3% have attended a ballet performance in the last year. (Wallace Foundation, Building Millennial Audiences, January 2017) To that point, when I talk about inequity in ballet, I ask everyone in the room to put a hand over one eye and squint the other eye 3/4 shut. This is the magnitude of the cognitive dissonance between the artistic vision presented on stage and those in the seats. The result? An art form rapidly losing relevance.

Can you share with our readers what your work is doing to help close the gender wage gap?

Dance Data Project® decided that we had to move the needle in less than a year and, we have done it! In 2020, for the first time, company heads publicly and routinely now admit both that ballet’s culture is misogynistic and that there is, in fact, an industry- wide problem. Dance publications, journalists, academics and leaders are now discussing concrete solutions. Following our launch last year, DDP will move towards unpacking the drivers of the industry as a whole, examining how to change the paradigm on a systematic basis globally.

Companies wipe their websites clean at the end of each season; therefore, no industry- wide numbers have been available year-to-year. This lack of accurate tracking has permitted certain influential critics, artistic directors and choreographers to claim that there isn’t a problem at all, that its simply just “noise.” Until Dance Data Project® proved otherwise, you would still routinely hear that women don’t want to lead, or it always has been this way in ballet and always will be. Or even, at most insulting, that as Balanchine famously said, “Ballet is woman,” so her only appropriate role is as a muse, not as a creator.

Simply by showing the shocking numbers: (Dance Data Project®, First Look, May 2019) of 645 works announced for next season, 81% will be by men; only 1 woman artistic director has a Top 10 salary; of the 7 of the 10 largest U.S. companies with resident choreographers, none gave the position to women. We are changing the conversation, giving journalists and advocates ammunition to question. Dance Data Project® celebrates those companies, festivals, and other institutions by promoting female led work and leadership on our website and social media. We also are amassing a world- wide data-base of female choreographers, set, costume and lighting designers.

Can you recommend 5 things that need to be done on a broader societal level to close the gender wage gap. Please share a story or example for each.

This is a complex and multi-faceted issue, best approached from a number of angles and pressure points:

1. Don’t work for free: So many female artists, whether its dancers, singers, or

actors, work for free, their theory being that “it will get me seen.” The problem is that they are seen, as not valuing their own work. I found in a previous career, that when I discounted my services or product, I lost respect, and was paid less and later. Hold firm, be pleasant, but decline to work without adequate compensation.

2. Run for leadership: In the case of classical ballet, the dancers’ union (AGMA) came down firmly on the side of the male dancers at New York City Ballet, which had fired them for degrading comments and passing around sexually explicit photographs without the consent of those filmed.(Dance Magazine Op-Ed “What AGMA Got Wrong”) Unfortunately, this is not unusual. When I first started my legal career, working for a management labor law firm, I often encountered situations where the employer would do the right thing and either terminate or discipline a worker for sexual harassment. Then, his buddies in the union, very often a friend who was a shop steward, would file a grievance. The result: Harassers were empowered and the company was completely frustrated in its attempts to enforce a legitimate policy.

3. Pay transparency leads to pay equity: That is the lesson of the BBC Crown pay scandal where it was discovered that Claire Foy, playing Elizabeth, and on screen virtually the entire time, was being paid substantially less than the actor playing her husband, Prince Phillip. The rationale? “Oh, he’s better known because he starred in Doctor Who.” Following those revelations, Parliament enacted legislation requiring companies to give pay scales. Turns out the BBC was paying senior women producers, editors and reporters, far less than their male counterparts. Of course, now there is push back and efforts to create big loopholes, but overall the legislation has transformed Great Britain. Similar legislation is pending in several states. (Paycor: State Pay Equity Laws). One good example is the recent legislation signed by Governor Pritzker outlawing employer inquiries into candidates past salaries. This practice has been found to adversely impact women.

4. Examine company policy: Whether it’s in the arts, sciences, business, services, it doesn’t matter. Not for profits are the same. Look critically at their mission statement, as well as their strategic plan. If there isn’t a commitment to pay and leadership equity, don’t buy their product, don’t give them your money, don’t donate. Why? Because it’s not the Mad Men era, women are earning majority of doctoral degrees and outnumbered men in grad school 137 to 100 (AEI.org) yet women are not getting the first promotions. Ditto hard sciences as well as the tech community. At this point, those in power are out of excuses, both the data showing that mixed gender teams perform better, and understanding of why women aren’t promoted (see Iris Bohnet’s work “Designing a Bias Free Workplace”-HBR).

There are small, but meaningful concrete steps that don’t cost any money:

• Pledge to eliminate “manels” (all male panels of experts)

• Cite women in the field when discussing or interviewing influences

• Put actual numbers behind the diversity, equity and inclusion pledges, and make executive or C-Suite compensation tie to meeting those goals

5. Own your power: Finally, women make the major purchasing decisions; we

decide where the philanthropic dollars go. The moment of maximum power is right before handing over a check. Ask, “where are the women?” I did, was rebuffed, and then it finally paid off. What we won’t do for ourselves, or men won’t do for their wives, they will often do for their daughters.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The answer is both very simple and very complex. By many estimates, women will control 2/3rds of the wealth in the U.S. within the next generation. According to the Lilly School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, women are involved in or are the sole decision makers on 87% of giving decisions. Yet, we don’t support women’s causes and each other. Women need to actively fund each other’s work and stop thinking in terms of scarcity. There is more than enough to go around. We need to speak up. Whether its ballet or another cause, women should absolutely feel confident in challenging the status quo. See my answer to Question 3!

DDP’s hashtag for this idea is #AskB4UGive. In the Advocacy page on our website, we provide an easy-to-use template of questions to ask before turning over a check or even buying a ticket. And, it’s not just for women. There are so many fantastic men who “get it” and want to help.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

To quote a mashup of Winston Churchill and Sia, “Never give up.” I would also add in one by the inimitable Madeline Albright, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

On never giving up- when we first started our work, I consulted a well-known intellectual property attorney. He was adamant that Dance Data Project® would never receive trademark status because our proposed name was “too descriptive.” My team and I were convinced that the name was perfect. After arguing repeatedly, the attorney finally, reluctantly agreed to pursue the trademark while consistently advising me it was a waste of time. I didn’t give up. Sure enough we were successful, however, this gentleman, the Chair of the IP department at a major law firm, “lost” our file and the US Patent Office certification, and then retired without informing us. Despite repeated phone calls and emails, we never were updated on the status of our application. Eventually, we retained another attorney, who promptly determined that we were granted trademark status. The prior firm attempted to bill us for the hours spent hunting for the documentation they insisted had been forwarded to us. Months later we received an embarrassed phone call from his former administrative assistant, letting us know that our file was located in his old office. I had some very interesting conversations with his successor. As you can imagine, I flatly refused to pay any additional fees. Lesson learned: Keep pushing for what you know to be right. Also, again see my response to Question 3, “keep probing.”

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Nothing in the world makes me as happy as hosting a group who embody the OG values I most admire: Perseverance, Kindness, Modesty, and a kick ass sense of humor. It’s the best kind of buzz to supply a wonderful meal, in a comfortable sunny setting, and then sit back to watch the unexpected affinities and friendships that emerge. On my dream list: Billie Jean King, Madeline Albright, Mary Beard (the classics scholar), Melinda Gates, any of the fabulous female SCOTUS members, and Wendy Whelan, since I am optimistic, she is determined to bring equity, transparency and excellence to New York City Ballet.

This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.


Elizabeth Yntema of the Dance Data Project: 5 Things We Need To Do To Close The Gender Wage Gap was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.