Why there's an absence of working class people in UK's creative and cultural sectors

Peter Saville visual campaign for Panic!2015. Credit: Emil Charlaff

Creative and cultural industries in the UK are made up of a relatively homogenous group of people, excluding the working class and potentially less liberal-minded people from both entering its workforce and attending its creative output, according to a report released this week by sociologists from Universities of Edinburgh and Sheffield based on data from a Create London nationwide survey.

Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries draws on several academic papers. Its four authors were commissioned by Create London to deliver the research. The report's findings confirm suspected class (and social and gender) systemic inequality within the cultural and creative sectors throughout Britain including film, television, radio, performing arts, publishing, museums, galleries and more.

Underrepresentation and pay gaps

The report looks at the social class background of the UK's creative workforce and how it effects working for free, social networks and cultural tastes. It found an absence of people with a working class social origin (defined as having grown up in a household where the main income earner worked in a semi-routine or routine manual job, or was long term unemployed) within the creative and cultural industries, as well as "significant under-representations of women and those from minority ethnic communities (BAME) in specific cultural occupations such as film, TV, video, radio and photography, music, performing and visual art."

Taken from Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries

Alongside underrepresentation, the women who are in creative or cultural roles earn an estimated £5,800 less per year than otherwise similarly employed men, according to a 2016 paper published in Cultural Trends (it’s particularly a worse situation for women in film, television, radio and photography, who earn an estimated £15,000 less per year), and there’s evidence to show a class pay gap of up to £23,000 per year in publishing (although much of the gap is related to individuals education levels).

"Gaps in pay mean that even when women or those form working class origins make it into cultural occupations, they still struggle to compete with colleague who are male or from upper-middle class starting points," the report says.

Working for free is an industry endemic

Inequality also relates to location within the UK, with a report based on the UK's Labour Force Survey stating creative businesses are all clustered in the South East of England, and especially in London. This leads into inequality among those who can afford unpaid internships in London –where the cost of living is much higher than anywhere else in the UK – and those who can’t.

However, working for free is endemic to the entire industry, as respondents to the Create London survey indicated. Around 87 percent of respondents, irrespective of creative occupation or demographic, reported having worked for free in some capacity.

Freelance work, temporary contracts, internships, or project-based work can all go without pay. However, the survey found people with working class backgrounds viewed unpaid work as inescapable and a form of exploitation and although those with upper-middle class backgrounds had the same weight of expectation to work for free, they were more likely to describe potential career benefits.

Unpaid internships are a relatively new industry standard – with almost half of respondents under the age of 30 having completed one at some point, specifically more so in the advertising and marketing sectors.

"Understanding these divisions goes some way to explaining why some social groups can use working for free to their advantage in the labour market. Others, specifically the working class origin people are underrepresented in the cultural workforce, do not seem to be benefitting from working for free as a way of accessing their desired occupation," the report says.

"Unpaid work is a significant barrier to some for getting in and getting on in the cultural sector. However, this is something that is common to many modern professions, including the finance and charity sectors."

A cycle of liberal 'creative class'

Unpaid work and pay gaps are examples of inequalities, but other more subtle versions of exclusion are the attitudes, values and tastes in the current cultural and creative sectors that are very different from those of the rest of the population.

Cultural sector attitudes are most liberal, most pro-welfare and most left wing compared to any other industrial sector, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey (which has run for 35 years, but for the purposes of this report, it looks between the years of 2010 and 2015). This is clearly indicated in the diagrams below.

Figure 5: British Social Attitudes response to liberal/authoritarian questions by occupational group
Figure 6: British Social Attitudes responses to left/right questions by occupational group

This begs us to pose the question; if the nature of cultural and creative workers is relatively homogeneous, does this mean their creative output attracts other like-minded people, and in turn, create a cycle of ‘creative class’ which excludes those that don’t fit these world views?

“Hiring can be a form of ‘cultural matching’, excluding those who do not have the shared tastes of specific social groups. This is especially true in cultural and creative occupations and is another important and subtle barrier for those seeking to work in the sector,” the report says.

“Second, there is a broader question of representation. Academic work, along with public debates, demonstrates the mismatch between who is working to make culture and the representations expected by those from outside a predominantly white, male, or middle class ‘norm’ (or demographic) in industries such as theatre, film and television.”

Figure 9: Cultural attendance by occupation. Key: Classic attendance = light pink, Contemporary attendance = dark pink.

But Dr David O’Brien, one author of the report and Chancellor's Fellow in Cultural and Creative Industries, University of Edinburgh, says there isn’t a simple answer.

“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,” he says.

“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.”

Creative workers are more likely to know other creatives, such as an actor, journalist or museum curator, and less likely to be in touch with non-creative jobs, as seen in the diagram below.

Figure 2: Which occupations do creative workers know? Taken from Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries

This could show people in middle class jobs tend not to know people in working class occupations such as factory worker, bus driver, postal service.

Hard work vs who you know

Despite collective evidence to support the notion of inequality within Britain’s cultural and creative industries, a surprising attitude was revealed from the initial Panic! 2015 survey. It found that a majority of people within the industry said ambition, hard work and talent are essential in getting ahead, but ethnicity, class and coming from a wealthy family are not important at all in getting ahead. Basically, the majority suggest meritocracy explains success in the creative and culture sector.

The highly-paid group of respondents, earning more than £50,000 per year, and in the most influential positions in the creative industries, believe success is down to ambition, the survey reveals. So the more success a person has, the more they’re committed to expecting hard work and talent to explain that success. But others suggest it’s more about who you know.

"The UK film industry is not a meritocracy at all. It doesn’t matter if you’re intelligent or well qualified or any of those things. What matters is who you know and who you’ve worked with," Nisha ("a British Asian woman from middle class social origins in her 30s, working in film and television") said in her interview for the survey, as mentioned in the report.

"More needs to be done to get the better paid and the decision makers to think beyond their own faith in hard work and talent always finding a way, and to confront both the practical barriers, such as the expectation of unpaid work, and the more subtle barriers stopping the sector rewarding a more diverse range of individuals and communities," says David.

"Lots of things need to change, from changes to the education system, changes to hiring and commissioning practices (and funding decisions), through to being much more open to institutional change, rather than trying to get people to change to fit the institution. This is true of both potential employees and of potential audiences."

Systemic transformation needs to take place with the recruiting process, including approaches such as no name/blind CVs, unconscious bias training for hiring panels, and more flexible forms of working, particularly towards those with caring responsibilities, says David.

What next?

"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," David says.

Create London and the Barbican are hosting an afternoon of discussion in June at the Barbican Centre to reflect on the report and share it with the sector. Tickets are available here.

Note: We may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site, at no extra cost to you. This doesn't affect our editorial independence. Learn more.

Read Next...