Work hard, be nice to people and have rich parents: addressing privilege in the creative industry

1 November 2016

Gemma Germains, founder of Well Made Studio, talks candidly about the bias and privilege omnipresent in the creative industry.

Success isn’t simply the result of late nights and the right attitude. For many of us, success is a murky by-product of genetics, parentage and geography.

In 2015, creative work in the UK generated £10 million an hour. Worth a staggering £84.1 billion, ours is an industry of great wealth and even greater privilege. We get to do a job that champions talent and personality over the right kind of hideously expensive schooling. We’re an industry, ostensibly open to anyone with access to a laptop and stack of Post-its.

Ostensibly, because there are legions of talented yet unpaid interns, career break parents (predominantly mothers), people with disabilities and people of colour who aren’t being welcomed into the industry, irrespective of talent, hardware or gumption. Our industry is as white as Warburtons, able bodied and ever-decreasingly female the further up we climb.

In operation is an industry privilege that shames those of us with the voice, finances and ability to transform the status quo. Shameful that, despite having the opportunity to own our privilege, we choose instead to trot out the same weary lines about hard work, good luck and best behaviour.

I’m one of roughly 11% women holding an owner/director level position in the industry. I’m a great one to wheel out for talks. I’ve worked on well known projects and tackled considerable challenges. If someone like me can overcome industry privilege, even with a couple of kids in tow, then so can anyone if they work hard enough.

People listen to me. It’s absolutely vital I tell the truth.

I tell one particular story about how, through sheer grit and determination myself and my business partners rescued our collapsing business. Technically it’s the truth; I spent many months back in 2014 working without pay to put the studio back on track. All good and true, however, the only reason I was able to put so much unpaid effort into saving the studio was because 5 years previous, my father-in-law bought me a house.

"We would avoid lazy caricatures if our working teams better represented the population we are trusted to portray."

Gemma Germains

I’ve had a long career in the creative industries, done work I’m proud of without ever having to miss a sports day. But let’s be honest, I get a whopping leg up every month. No matter how much I think the big boys have it better, I’ll never have to worry about missing a mortgage payment.

Once those with it accept it exists, we can crack on with identifying those who may be in need of their own. I can’t buy everyone a house, but I can take ownership of my privilege and write it into my career narrative. I can admit that I’ve been lucky and use what means I do have to shine a light on those why may not be quite so blessed.

The creative industries are the UK’s shop front. Our images, words and ideas are consumed worldwide, yet only 5% of our adverts feature socially diverse subject matter. Those who do get a speaking part are often subjected to stereotypical representations. The roadman, the gay party-boy, the oppressed Muslim woman. Not only are these representations boring, they’re downright dangerous in a country with hate crime on the increase.

We would avoid these lazy caricatures if our working teams better represented the population we are trusted to portray. The very first steps to improving the diversity of our teams is to put an end to mutual back patting and accepted that privilege made it possible for us to do our best work in an industry of great opportunity.

To own our privilege is to begin addressing where and how we sow our seeds. We need to look further than that which is familiar if we’re to tackle diversity.

From how opportunities are shared to who we build relationships with, it takes a concerted effort to tackle the side effects of denying privilege. Advertising jobs in the same place, speaking at the same schools expecting the same path to generate new responses will only make things worse in the long run.

Next time you’re advertising a new position, reach out to LGBT, BME and disability arts groups and use their networks to amplify not only the available role but your stance on diversity. Actively support these groups with your time and money.

Build relationships with cultural gatekeepers who have ready made relationships with schools, incubators and other pockets of creativity.

Pay your interns, shorten their working day to accommodate parental responsibilities, socialise away from the pub. Look at how much of what you take for granted is a by-product of your privilege. We make our clients analyse their behaviour, surely we can do the same for ourselves?

There’s no shame in having a white skin, a rich dad or four working limbs. What’s not ok is to assume that hard work alone put us ahead of those without.

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