Are the creative industries as progressive and liberal as we think? Apparently not

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New research has revealed that the UK’s creative/media industry isn’t as forward-thinking and diverse as it might like to think it is: In fact, 59% of employees and leaders wouldn’t call the industry ‘progressive’ at all.

The survey of more than 300 employees at all levels among creative agencies, media agencies, and media owners was carried out by media agency UM in partnership with Bloom UK, the professional network for women in communications. It found that as many as 60% have also faced unfair barriers to their career progression because of their background – gender, sexuality, ethnicity: 35% of workers in creative agencies feel they didn’t receive a promotion due to their background and 53% think they have to work harder to be seen as equal to their peers, compared to an average of 38%.

The research also found that senior leaders are “more cynical than their more junior colleagues” and 20% less likely to think the industry is progressive. Of course, this could be read as a positive sign that they’re aware that more could be done, but it could also be read (rather aptly) as cynicism. It’s not exactly infallible research, of course, as these are statistics based on opinion, not fact, but they are certainly interesting, given that the creative industries have traditionally been seen as bastions of progressive ideals. 

Perhaps the problem is that the industry is guilty of paying lip-service to diversity without actually dong enough about it? Sophia Durrani, managing partner, strategy at UM, explains: “The overwhelming message from the research is that our industry is still too focused on talk when it comes to diversity and inclusion and there’s not enough action. People are fed up: we need to stop resisting what the world actually looks like and find ways to embrace it.” 

The data also suggests that perhaps treating the industry as a singular entity is the wrong way of looking at things. It may be that creative agencies are in a different place in their journey and need to be encouraged to move a little faster?

The survey also highlighted that the number one factor in helping agencies to be more inclusive was to instigate a visibly diverse leadership team – 59% thought so. 72% also saw a diverse group of leaders as a defining characteristic of the most progressive organisations in the sector. The fear is, of course, that this could lead to ‘token’ promotions, but given the dearth of diverse leadership within the industry (which is still, it has to be said, made up primarily of white males).

Only 12% of creative employees think they work in a company with three or more BAME employees in a senior position, 11% believe they have three or more openly LGBTQ+ leaders and 15% have three or more working-class leaders. More damning still, only 7% think they have any disabled leaders at all. 

Could this be a case of perception over reality though? Stephanie Matthews, president of Bloom UK, says: “It’s possible some of these leaders exist and people just aren’t aware of them, as some of these characteristics aren’t always visible or talked about. However, it’s still very clear the communications industry, in particular, is genuinely lacking diversity at the top.

Tellingly, the research also found that those in more privileged positions, (the aforementioned white men) are feeling increasingly pressured by the growing focus on inclusion in the creative sector: 26% of men feel it’s putting senior white men at a disadvantage and 34% believe women actually have more opportunities than men for support, training and personal development. Is this a sign of the old guard kicking against the tide? Or do they have a point?

Durrani concludes: “Looking at the data, men are more likely to feel pressured and at a disadvantage because of the acceleration of the diversity and inclusion agenda. Those in privileged positions in our industry have the potential to be diversity’s greatest allies, but progress will be limited unless any perceived threat is addressed.” 

In my view, this all points to the fact that diversity needs to be seen less as a buzzword and an ‘inclusive’ box-ticking exercise and more as a necessary step forward for the industry and that will require education beyond the liberal echo chamber of those actively pushing for diversity. It’s understandable that many in privileged positions feel threatened. To tackle this, we have to get the conversations out into the open. Only then will the old guard stop seeing it as a threat. Because if we can’t be a beacon of hope for the wider working world, then who can be?


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