New report delivers damning verdict on social mobility in creative sector

By Eliza Williams

The Panic! paper demonstrates significant exclusions across the cultural sector (including arts, music, publishing, advertising and IT) of women, those from working class origins, and those from BAME backgrounds. This may not come as a huge surprise to many, with diversity being a much-discussed topic across the arts in recent years.

What is more revealing is how the report analyses the dynamics of social mobility in the cultural sector, and offers insights into how the tastes, values and political views found there are often different from the rest of society. Cultural workers are shown to be socially exclusive, for example, tending to mainly know other creatives, to the exclusion of many other occupations. They come from disproportionately economically privileged backgrounds, and have the most liberal and left-wing politics of any occupational sector.

Perhaps most concerning, a high proportion of respondents to the original Panic! survey believe that success in their sector is based on hard work and talent (otherwise known as ‘meritocratic’ beliefs), with the survey respondents who are most attached to this idea highly-paid white men, irrespective of age. If those at the top of the industry believe that the system is working, there is a risk that there may be a reluctance to instigate change.

The creative industries have in fact been slow to respond to changes in policy and practice designed to tackle inequality and exclusion so far. For example, despite the establishment of the minimum wage, and sector-led calls to restrict unpaid work, inequalities are reinforced by the continued and historical prevalence of unpaid work and low-paid labour within the industries, resulting in many entry-level jobs excluding all but the most privileged. In the Panic! survey almost 90% of the 2,487 respondents reported working for free in some way, with just under half of respondents under 30 having done at least one unpaid internship.

The study was led by academics Drs Dave O’Brien, Orian Brook, and Mark Taylor from the Universities of Edinburgh and Sheffield. Below we discuss some of its most significant findings with O’Brien, who is Chancellor’s Fellow Cultural and Creative Industries, University of Edinburgh.

Demographics in the creative industries

Creative Review: What prompted the commissioning of the report?
Dr Dave O’Brien: The report was part of an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project, with Create London and Arts Emergency, which developed with the Barbican too. We were thinking about ways of connecting academic research beyond just academics, particularly how to do something striking and interesting for both the cultural sector and the public.

CR: What does it broadly reveal – do the creative industries suffer from a lack of social mobility and diversity? And if so, does this exist across all cultural industries?
DO’B: Sadly there are significant inequalities across all creative industries, with gender, ethnicity and class inequalities all intersecting. However, there are important differences. IT workers are the most ethnically diverse but have significantly lower numbers of women than the rest of the workforce as a whole and most of the other creative occupations. Film, TV and Radio, and Museums have a much better gender mix, but are characterised by exclusions along the lines of gender and ethnicity. Its really important to think about how social mobility, which is to say class issues, intersects with other questions of diversity.

CR: Has the accessibility of the creative industries changed much over the decades?
DO’B: Yes and no. Whilst there are many, many more middle class origin people working in creative industries now than compared to the early 1980s, this is because there are more middle class origin people in society overall. At the same time the chances, the odds, of a working class origin person making it into a creative job have remained similar since the 1980s, around four times less than the odds of a middle class origin person.

CR: Have internships and the concept of working for free become more common recently or has this always existed?
DO’B: Internships specifically have changed, as organisations like Arts Council England have cracked down on them. In terms of working for free, many, many more of our younger respondents reported working for free, suggesting it is much more prevalent now than it was for older generations. However, it’s also worth noting the different narratives about free work between older workers who saw it often as a choice, a ‘gift’ or favour, or as losing pay for longer hours, as opposed to younger people who told us about working literally for nothing.

British Social Attitudes responses to left/right questions by occupational group

CR: It is possible to identify how early a barrier to entry appears – is it something that begins at school and early education?
DO’B: In our fieldwork interviews we saw similarities across the core ‘cultural’ jobs such as artist, musician or actor, a sense that from an early age these jobs might not be for working class origin people, of whatever gender or ethnicity. So perceptions about the industries especially about making a living in them and the sense that they are jobs that will be welcoming, start very young. Its slightly different in design and advertising as these have less associations with being elite, or exclusive occupations. Then we can add to this the impact of education, for example in one of the academic papers underpinning the report we show the weak relationship to doing an arts subject at university and getting a creative job, and in another one of the papers we show the way higher education is still quite exclusive, especially for older creative workers who came through the system when it was more restricted than it is now. So yes, it starts early in school then the ‘talent pipeline’ leaks from there.

CR: The report shows that those with the most power in the cultural world believe it is a meritocracy – what problems or barriers does that create for change to occur?
DO’B: We think this is a problem in two ways. It suggests that those at the top of creative occupations, who have the power to change them through policy or through things like hiring and commissioning, might not be aware of the struggles of others. It also raises the question as to whether people at the top think it’s a problem at all. To understand this question we did lots of interview fieldwork that we are still writing up for future publication. Interestingly we did find an awareness of issues of inequality discussed by our ‘top’ creative professionals, which prompts the question as to why change seems to be slow. Unfortunately change might be slowed by the best earning creatives in our survey being so strongly attached to the idea that despite inequalities success is explained by hard work and talent.

Percentage of people attending art forms at least once a year

CR: Is the lack of diversity in the arts leading to a lack of diversity in the type of creative work being created? Is this in part why attendance figures for some art forms is low?
DO’B: This is difficult to say for sure, as we don’t have a fully settled theory as to the exact link or mechanism between who makes and who consumes culture. We suspect who makes is at least correlated to who attends, and intuitively it would make sense for the class, ethnic and gender makeup of creative industries to influence who attends. Thus we see lower levels of attendance by those in working class occupations, perhaps reflecting their lack of interest in middle class dominated and produced cultural forms.

CR: And finally, does the report identify any actions that can be taken by the creative industries to promote change?
DO’B: We’re hopeful that we might see more data-led or evidence-led approaches to really tackling the issues we’ve raised, particularly when it comes to the need to recognise that there are longstanding issues of inequality and previous approaches might not have been effective.

The full Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries report can be read here; In Focus, a panel discussion of the issues raised in the report, will take place at the Barbican on June 27; tickets are available here

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