Gender Issues in the Cultural and Creative Industries. Dr Ruth Adams
Gender Issues in the Cultural and Creative Industries
Dr Ruth Adams, Lecturer in Cultural & Creative Industries
Although gender is an important issue in pretty much every aspect of human activity and a key aspect of research, whatever the discipline, it perhaps looms particularly large within the cultural and creative industries. Not the least of the reasons for this is that the cultural and creative industries include the media, which, in the modern and postmodern eras, have been largely responsible not just for shaping the way we look at the world around us, but actually creating that world.
It is hardly a novel observation to note that the Western media is obsessed with the way that women look, or that obsession can have real social and psychological effects. But to some extent the very ubiquity of idealised, photoshopped and airbrushed images of usually white, and almost certainly young and slim women has rendered them normative and unremarkable. This then makes it easier to render normative and unremarkable the idea that women can and should be judged primarily or even exclusively on their conformity to prevailing aesthetic ideals. Consider for example, the fact that probably every one of us in this room can almost certainly name, without too much trouble, quite a few celebrity women who are famous only for being beautiful. But can you name any men who are famous only for being good to look at? Certainly men are not immune from the beauty myth and a culture of objectification, and a handsome face will certainly not hinder a career in acting, music or sport, but society still expects men to be something more.
Indeed, men who are deemed to have something else to offer can enjoy high profile media careers with neither youth nor beauty on their side. But can the same be said for many talented women? I’m sure we’re all aware of the furious debates that surrounded the removal of veteran choreographer Arlene Philips from the panel of Strictly Come Dancing to be replaced by Alesha Dixon, with no qualifications beyond being a former contestant and a youthful bloom.
[arguments about female newsreaders being ditched when they get old]
Even women who work ‘backstage’, are often judged on their appearance. My former colleague Hatty Oliver’s research on fashion and beauty journalists working on newspapers and magazines notes the pressure on them to ‘walk the talk’, and the many hours of unpaid labour they must spend on the presentation of themselves.
Even in contexts where looks are not regarded as a primary concern, on the radio for example, women are often poorly or differently represented in comparison to men. Some years ago, my colleague Ros Gill researched the reasons for the lack of female broadcasters on pop music radio in the UK. Here the discrimination seemed to be much less overt, and consequently, much harder to identify and tackle. She noted that none of the producers or radio station bosses she interviewed argued that women were not good enough, or that their place was in the home, and actually stressed their great admiration for women and their genuine desire to hire them. However, they also offered persuasive justifications for why they actually employed so few female DJs: women didn’t apply, the audience preferred men, women who went into broadcasting wanted to be in news not entertainment, etc. In this context feminist arguments were apparently taken on board, but not translated into egalitarian practice.
Women who want to go into broadcast news face their own challenges…
[debate about women on the Today programme],
… but I think that one of the most interesting arguments is that women simply didn’t apply. My own research looking at female club djs sought to discover why there are so few of them. Few of my respondents reported experiencing very much in the way of overt discrimination, rather the opposite in some instances. The real barrier seemed to be girls’ and women’s own perceptions, i.e. that playing dance music in nightclubs, and particularly the more niche or noisy genres, was for the boys. It was seen either as rather ‘anoraky’ or, like playing the electric guitar, sexy in a man, but unfeminine in a woman.
This is not to say that women are underrepresented in the workforce of the cultural and creative industries however. John Holden & Helen McCarthy note that:
Women make up almost 80% of Britain’s librarians and archivists and 75% of the visual arts workforce. In 2004/5, 58% of permanent staff working for organisations regularly funded by Arts Council England (ACE) were female, and a 2003 survey estimated that women composed 61% of employees in Britain’s theatres. Nor is there any apparent shortage of women coming up through the pipeline. Women accounted for 60% of UK students enrolled on creative arts and design courses in 2005/6.
Our intake onto our Masters programme in Cultural and Creative Industries is predominantly female. This year [2010/2011], almost 90% of a cohort of 122 students are female. The arts are a feminised activity, but those at the top of the sector are still predominantly male.
Why might this be? What are the barriers that stop women getting to the top?
– Precarious Labour
Much of the work carried out in the cultural and creative industries might be characterised as ‘precarious labour’. If we examine, for example, the reasons why there are very few women over the age of 40 working in the film and television sector, the precariousness of the labour might be regarded as a contributory factors. Much of the work is freelance, with long, often unsociable hours, with very little flexibility and with no maternity cover. Clearly these are issues that could or should equally affect men, but women still shoulder most of the domestic burden and take responsibility for most childcare [twice that of men on average] and may find that a family and a career in the media are incompatible, and that the latter has to give.
– The ‘Old Boy Network’
In certain, often more traditional and well-established sectors of the cultural industries, such as museums for example, the ‘Old Boy Network’ still prevails, and here gender intersects with class. ‘The old boy network’ means the system of informal, personal contacts between men, usually former students of public schools and Oxbridge universities, who use their influence to advance one another’s careers, and arguably perpetuate of the ‘Establishment’ in the UK.
The vast majority of directors of major UK museums share this background, and in 2007 research indicated that although there were largely equal numbers of men and women working in museums, of the twenty-seven museums, libraries and archives which make up the National Museum Directors’ Conference, just three are currently headed by women. Although women museum workers are now more likely to hold formal qualifications than their male counterparts, this is still, on the whole, failing to translate into career mobility.
Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre argues that:
One thing’s for certain: if women have managed to get to the top of the arts world, they won’t have used any old girls’ network. There is no equivalent of the boys’ club in our world. Women in the top posts will have got there on sheer flair, stamina, determination and conscientiousness.
– Gendered Labour
Those women who make it to the top will also have to resist or reject taking on gendered roles within the workplace.
Women disproportionately occupy lower-paid, lower-status jobs, shoulder much of the burden of teaching and administrative tasks, and have difficulty achieving promotion to senior posts. This may be partly due to differential socialisation, but can also be attributed to a patriarchal culture which views certain types of activity as more ‘valid’ and ‘valuable’ than others. In museums as in universities, research tends to be the primary criterion for recruitment and promotion, and enjoys a far higher status than either teaching or ‘service’ (i.e. administrative, committee and pastoral activities).
– The ‘Unspeakability’ of Sexism
Another issue that is not exclusive to but is perhaps more heightened in the cultural and creative industries is that they are assumed to be a more ‘groovy’ and liberal sector, and if not explicitly feminised, then certainly infinitely less ‘blokey’ than, say, science or heavy industry.
The creative industries might be described as a “postfeminist” climate in which equality is assumed, yet in which men are privileged—in terms of pay, access to jobs, social networks, and career trajectories. What Ros Gill has called the “neo-bohemian” informality of media workplaces—understood as “cool, creative and egalitarian” actually makes it much harder to talk about gender discrimination. This is compounded by the rhetoric of meritocracy that prevails within the creative sector, an environment in which individual ‘genius’ is fetishised.
In such a context “not making it” is interpreted as individual failure: you weren’t good enough, you couldn’t hack it. Consequently there has been, Gill claims, an “annihilation of any language for talking about structural inequalities. The potency of sexism lies in its very unspeakability.”
 HOLDEN John & McCARTHY Helen, Women at the top: A provocation piece, (Demos & City University, London, 2007), p. 2
 Jude Kelly, ‘We have sweated copiously’, in The Guardian, 3 April 2008