A False Refuge: Gender Discrimination in the Cultural Sector

This piece was originally published in September 2019 for Twenty Two Percent , a platform that explores why women make up only 22% of employees in the design sector.

For me, and many of my peers, the creative industries appear to offer a ticket out of discriminatory sectors and jobs. On the surface, the arts seem to ignore gender and instead celebrate individual identity. 

My Instagram is full of wonderful female creators, often from marginalised communities, who show the vibrancy and true potential of the creative industries as an inclusive field. I have lapped up the algorithms of social media and my own naivety to surround myself in a cocoon of diversity and artistic meritocracy. 

And that’s just it. Equality. Its existence is the lie we have all been sold and are desperate to believe. 

‘In 2015 women only made up 36.7% of jobs in the creative sector’

In reality, the creative industries are not as progressive and welcoming as the creators wanting to break into them. Instead, like every other economic sector, the same white, upper-middle class, male demographic holds the keys to the doors that we want to open.

We need to face up to the facts that women have been conned. In an area proud of its supposed extroverted and diverse forms of expression, the creative industries have let us believe that they see women as intellectually and socially equal to men.

In reality, in 2015 women only made up 36.7% of jobs in the creative sector. In 2018, only 22% of the design workforce are women. Even more extremely, only 14% of employees in the £1.7 billion video games industry are women, when they play more than half of the games.

When just over a third of the workforce are women, the creative, artistic and culturally influential female voice is drowned out by the dominant male narrative that reaches consumers. In platforming more men, the industry, therefore, is systemically reinforcing the belief that the male voice takes precedence over the female. Even then, the female voice will be overwhelmingly one of white middle-class privilege. So, let’s talk. Let’s talk, shout and scream about these statistics.

‘The bottom line is that we are being ripped off.’

To see a woman as intellectually and socially equal means seeing her as economically equal too. Let’s not be shy, the creative industries are big business and contributed over £100bn to the British economy in 2017. The bottom line is that we are being ripped off. In limiting the number of female creatives, society is depriving us access to that huge amount of capital.

Moreover, women disproportionately invest in the creative industries not only through consumer interaction but also as the majority of fee-paying creative students. By pouring in money to the creative industries and being restricted as to how much capital we can access, women are immediately in a deficit. Our funds are not supporting female talent, but further bolstering the male-dominated sector. 

Women don’t need to be told they are valued, they need to be shown it. That means a concerted effort through quotas, programmes and investment to challenge a trend that places women in positions of casual employment and free labour in the creative industries.  The role of women is not to organise and administrate art but actively participate in it. As research by McKinsey shows, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.

It is also particularly important that the cultural sector platforms and actively supports women from traditionally marginalised communities. Art should be for everyone. Whilst there is a strong economic case for diversity in the workplace – companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians – what is most important is meaningful representation rather than a tick box exercise. Don’t just trust my vapid musings, watch Michaela Coel’s brilliant James MacTaggart Lecture and do your own research.

These statistics show that the sector desperately needs to invest in, and listen to, underrepresented talent. While mentoring and networking are key to professional development, these can’t function on goodwill alone. Nothing beats putting cold hard cash into female creativity and programmes. Whether you are a consumer or an employer, support female-owned, particularly female minority-owned, organisations. Now is the time to invest in inclusion and use these figures as a stark reminder of the female deficit in the cultural sector.

The world is watching.


Thoughts from Eden, July 2020
For those privileged enough, lockdown has provided time and space for introspection in a world that too often hurtles blindly, or very deliberately, onto the next thing. As I have learnt, changed my mind, learnt some more and changed my mind again, I have edited and added to this article. And wow, isn’t it brilliant to learn. 

That learning doesn’t stop, and I’m in two minds to share this piece, originally written in September 2019, when I feel it addresses a symptom of discrimination and not the cause. 

I would no longer choose to focus on (economic) statistics around gender inequality in the cultural sector. The piece and its structure sits firmly within ‘the system’ I attempt to critique. Although it condemns a lack of representation and investment in women, it implicitly suggests that the system can, or should, be fixed.

But maybe the system is broken. The more I’ve listened to marginalised women, the more it’s become clear that the narratives of white mainstream feminism need to change. 

Getting more women into the cultural sector, as it exists today, might help people like me (white, non-disabled, middle class), but is it actually going to empower black women, women of colour, working class women, disabled women, queer women and transgender women? Can they ever really thrive in a system that deliberately excludes them in multiple ways?

I really cannot fault women for demanding more money and more jobs from a system that exploits and undervalues them. That is the reality of our society. But working in a broken system will never get you what you want. Perhaps it’s time to turn that energy towards transformation and not adaptation. 

As a wonderful friend put it, we need a new economy of knowledge. The bigger picture is sharing ideas and resources with one another, outside of exclusionary institutions. That, along with listening to and platforming others, is where I will be putting my energy in the future.

Read the article, then reread my thoughts, and reflect on how you too have space to learn and change.

Informative Reports:  


Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Cultural Sector

Creative Industries Federation and MOBO Report

Design Council International Women’s Day

Creative Federation

Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Sector Economic Estimates

UNESCO report on Gender Equality and Culture, 2014 

Diversity Matters (McKinsey)

Michaela Coel’s James MacTaggart Lecture, 2018

Cover image and graphics by Eden Szymura (reworking Caravaggio’s Medusa)

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