Own Your Power: Elizabeth Yntema on Gender Equality in Dance

Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Elizabeth Yntema, president and founder of the Dance Data Project (DDP), which promotes “equity in all aspects of classical ballet by providing a metrics-based analysis through our database while showcasing women-led companies, festivals, competitions, venues, special programs and initiatives.” 

Elizabeth Yntema, president and founder of the Dance Data Project (courtesy: Elizabeth Yntema)

1. What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?

I wish I had had a female mentor, and she had reassured me that success isn’t defined by a linear path. I have been a corporate attorney, a lobbyist, worked as the Director of Governmental Affairs of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, was employed part-time as a consultant, opened an art gallery and, with three small children, focused on volunteering for a time. Now, I use every single one of my experiences and skills acquired over the decades. 

When starting my own nonprofit in 2018, it would have been so great to know that it’s lonely and a bit terrifying to lead rapid, serious change. No matter how much is written about  “disrupting the status quo” or “strategic paradigm shift,” in reality, those in power are scared to death when they see someone creating that shift and challenging norms. You will hear, “No,” over and over, or, “It can’t be done,” or, “You aren’t qualified to do this.”

I never thought of myself as running a start-up, because I was so focused on helping women artists achieve leadership and pay parity. Some of the best counsel and insight came from listening to podcasts by entrepreneurs. The particular product or field doesn’t matter– it’s about the experience of putting yourself way out in front of the curve and forcing everyone to catch up.

2. What is your current greatest professional challenge?

There aren’t enough hours in the day. I try and read at least four or five newspapers a day, including several foreign publications, as well as blogs, long-form journalism and business publications, in addition to running my team, which is dispersed throughout the U.S. We have done an incredible job on a very tight budget. DDP will have produced eight studies in less than a year and gained national media attention through NPR, Forbes and The New Yorker, to name a few. But the question is always where best to devote my time and DDP’s resources? Should I do more speaking, work on networking, reach out to foundations, pursue academic partnerships, travel more to meet ballet companies or attend conferences? And of course, the answer is yes, to all.

3. What inspires you most about your work? 

That is easy: Pretty much everything. Whether it is more than one female artistic director saying, “I had no idea how bad things really were, thank you so much for opening my eyes,” to the classes of young dancers I meet. By the way, it’s not just the girls or young women, but the boys who come up to me and say, “This is ridiculous! I hate that my girl friends are treated like they don’t matter — totally unfair.” But, frankly, I am also inspired by the negative; the men, and some women, who dismiss women’s desire for leadership, or equal pay; those in positions of power, who have so terrified their students or company members that the entire industry is scared to speak up. Someone has to help, and I guess, it turns out, that person is me. I want to be worthy of that trust.

4. How does your gender identity inform your work?

Great question, and here’s why. Women are told over and over, whether it’s’ in ballet or the sciences or private equity, “You are too young,” or “too old” or, literally, “Who do you think you are?” (that particular gem came from another woman). I am constantly reminded that my and our work is suspect or dismissed simply because of my sex. 

That has driven my strategy: DDP looks at the numbers. We don’t opine or speculate on the “why;” we leave that to the experts who have been in the field for years.  It’s much harder to deny or ignore the fact that of the top 10 salaries for artistic directors, only one was earned by a woman, and it was a little over a third of that for the highest-paid man. Another example is that in the top 10 ballet companies, seven have resident choreographers (the best job in the business), and zero of them are women. For both the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 seasons, less than 20% of works of any kind will be choreographed by women.

Journalists have been searching for the research to back up decades-long objections to the ballet excluding women from the best jobs. That is what we provide. 

DDP’s model and studies work for other art forms, too; symphony, opera, museums. What is different about ballet is that women make up approximately 70% of the donor base and the audience. At many schools, girls outnumber boys by twenty-to-one at the lower level of classes, while boys receive the lion’s share of scholarships and prestigious fellowships.

5. How can philanthropy support gender equity?

The short answer is to ask before you give (#AskB4UGive). Go to the DDP website and look under advocacy. We give an easy-to-use road map or template, a series of questions to determine whether the charity — be it social services, a ballet, symphony or an education fund — deserves your support.

By some estimates, women will control two-thirds of US wealth within a generation. Women make or are part of 87% of philanthropic decisions. But, as you know,  there is a stunning gap between the potential women have to better each other’s lives and the share of funding going directly to women and children, despite the multiple studies demonstrating conclusively that the best way to lift up society in general, is to target giving to women and children. 

Whether your interest is ballet, poverty, education, gun violence or philanthropy in general, I believe women need to take three steps. First, we must start with us, as a sex, getting comfortable talking about money, wealth and power. As Sallie Krawcheck of Ellevest has said, 85% of wealth advisors are white males over the age of 50. There is a massive opportunity for women to step in as wealth management advisors, who will listen to what their female clients want. Second, we need to own and celebrate our power and then target our giving to those institutions that promote women into leadership, pay a fair wage, and include gender-equity in their mission statement or strategic plan.

Third, as I preach in all my public speaking, stop working for free! Demand a decent wage, advocate for a comfortable lifestyle. Men sure don’t have a problem doing it.

6. In the next 10 years, where do you see the gender equity movement taking us?

I am so hopeful. With #TimesUp and #MeToo, to climate change, to organizing politically, women are in the resurgence. Our planet and our everyday lives will be better for it.

From a historical perspective, at least in the U.S., women have stepped to the back of the line, over and over, bowing to pressure to put their interests last. As the science of giving and the research around philanthropy throughout the U.S. and globally becomes more sophisticated, with better evaluation tools constantly evolving, we can clearly see the impact of putting women and their interests last. By every measurement, you can judge a society on how it treats women. Pick your issue — from climate change to education or, here in the U.S., homelessness and violence. Or examine the generational consequences of women lagging in economic terms and health care outcomes, due to underfunding research about women. Consider how the silencing of our voices in the arts and entertainment impoverishes and diminishes us all. 

Finally, instead of a scarcity model that drives women to compete against or marginalize each other, give credit. Celebrate and give a platform to women’s achievements and success. Let’s make the pie bigger.

More on Elizabeth Yntema

Elizabeth Yntema is president and founder of the DDP. She is a member of WTTW (Chicago PBS), the Advisory Board of the Trust for Public Land in Illinois and the Board of Directors of the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. She 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 and the Children’s Home and Aid Society and the Junior League of Chicago, where she was named Volunteer of the Year for her work advocating for homeless women and children. Yntema has underwritten ballets for the Joffrey Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance Company. In May 2018, the 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. Yntema, along with the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation and Rockefeller Brothers Fund, was an initial principal sponsor for this initiative and continues to provide support. Read more about her work and DDP on the nonprofit’s site

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Author: Julia Travers

I often cover innovations in science, the arts and social justice. Find my work with NPR, Discover Magazine, APR and Earth Island Journal, among other publications. My portfolio is at jtravers.journoportfolio.com.

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