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Should the arts be doing more to increase diversity? And if so, what? In this first of three reports, Frances Richens looks at the findings from ArtsProfessional's latest Pulse survey, with a focus on diversity in the workplace.

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Questions about equality and diversity in the arts sector are not new. The Arts Council of Great Britain held a symposium called ‘The Arts and Cultural Diversity’ as long ago as 1989. But calls to deliver equality of access and to increase the diversity of voices in the sector have never been louder.

While the mainstream press may be mostly concerned about the dominance of white, privileged actors, a multitude of conversations are going on in the arts sector, from the under-representation of women in leadership positions, to the shockingly poor disabled access in West End theatres and the resistance of venues to programme work by artists from culturally diverse backgrounds. Lack of diversity is an issue across all genres of the arts and all areas of the sector’s work. It affects those working in the sector, including artists, as well as audiences.

The recent publication by Arts Council England of workforce data from its National Portfolio Organisations and the launch of its ‘Creative Case’ initiative, which aims to help organisations promote diversity, has sparked debate and motivated many to action. Monitoring demands and the requirement for equality action plans mean that arts organisations are more aware than ever of their organisation’s diversity – or lack of it.

It’s in this context that 509 UK-based respondents completed ArtsProfessional’s latest Pulse survey in June and July 2016. The survey asked those working in the arts about their organisation’s attitudes towards diversity in its workforce, its audiences and its artistic work. It included questions about the barriers to improving diversity, and what should be done to break them down, and invited respondents to leave anonymous comments about the issues raised.

Read the full survey responses in the pdf document here, including over 800 comments related to diversity in the arts.

Attitudes to diversity

The survey confirms that diversity in relation to audiences and artistic work are top strategic priorities for most arts organisations. Workforce diversity was reported to be less of a priority, but still seen as important by most respondents.

Many commented along the lines of one respondent, who said: “We are well aware of the need for much greater diversity in our art form genre and are actively working to address this.” Or another, who said: “Diversity has moved further and further up our list of priorities. We firmly believe in the importance of diversity in creating a more inclusive, richer and outward looking company.”

Lip service

However, not everyone agreed that diversity was an important issue. One respondent wrote: “We do not exist to promote diversity – we exist to promote great art.”

Others though that their organisation was not doing enough to increase diversity. Around 9% said their organisation pays lip service to achieving diversity in its workforce. This was reflected in the comments. One wrote: “There is a tick box mentality rather than an enthusiasm for diversity. It is not intrinsic to our work, it is still being ‘added on’.” Another wrote: “As long as people think that we are doing what we say we are and there is no real accountability, it’s not that important.”

Some expressed exasperation at their organisation’s attitude to diversity. One wrote: “Despite meetings on how to improve diversity they never act on it.” Another: “Our organisation has responded to the political imperative around diversity but from my perspective our actions are not informed by a fundamental commitment. It feels like a set of clothes we are currently wearing but that we could and would quickly change out of if the wind changed.”

Some pointed the finger at senior management: “We are continually told by senior management that greater diversity among the staff, audiences and collections is a top priority. However, saying and doing are different things.”

Those in junior positions were less likely to think that achieving diversity was a priority for their organisation. One respondent commented: “I’m very junior but it doesn’t seem to me like they feel it has any relevance.” Another said: “I don’t think it’s been given a thought.”

Defining diversity

Some respondents raised concerns about the term ‘diversity’. One wrote: “The definition at the outset is extremely wide, to the point of being meaningless.”

Many agreed with another respondent, who wrote: “Diversity is a very broad spectrum and to identify gender and disability in the same category as race and religion seems a rather blunt tool.”

Another, commenting along the same lines, said: “Work, artists and a workforce that is representative of the population of the country is a clearer concept to me.”


In relation to the following characteristics, how important does your organisation consider diversity to be?
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Disability
  • Age
  • Socio-economic status
  • Religion

Headline figures

Respondents rated ethnicity as the most important diversity focus for their organisation. 80% said it was either important or very important, and over half (54%) said it was very important.

Gender and disability were given about equal weighting, with 72% and 71% respectively rating them important or very important. Socio-economic status was also rated very highly: 67% said it was important or very important, with 41% rating it as very important – on a par with gender.

Age and sexual orientation were seen as slightly less important, but still more than half (55% and 52% respectively) rated them as important or very important.

Religion was the only characteristic that wasn’t rated as important by most: just 26% said it was important or very important to their organisation.


The elephant in the room

Socio-economic status may not have been identified as important as frequently as ethnicity disability or gender, but it was often mentioned by respondents in their comments. It was described as the “elephant in the room” by more than one respondent and the “biggest barrier to engagement in the arts” by another. “This is systemic and complex,” one wrote.

Another said: “I think we should be more concerned about the arts becoming a middle class enclave and access to it being dictated by the amount of resource you have access to. Inequality sustains a lack of diversity.”

Priority areas

Some respondents said their organisation made no distinction between the different characteristics: “We treat everyone equally and give everyone the same courtesy.”

Others identified a clear priority for their organisation, such as one respondent who commented: “Immediate priorities are ethnicity and gender as our art from is very clearly predominantly male and white”

For some, targeting specific areas was seen as a necessity. One said: “We do not have the capacity to focus on all areas.” Another: “In order to make progress we have specifically identified three protected characteristics which are priorities for development with more ambitious targets and focus.”

The importance of inclusivity

Others were critical of such selective focus. One wrote: “Priority is definitely given to more visible characteristics such as ethnicity, disability and gender.” Another: “There is an over emphasis on the colour of skin because it is obvious but actually being diverse is about including different attitudes, values and skills regardless of colour or race.”

One respondent expressed frustration at how ‘diversity’ is typically defined: “A lot of the work we do doesn’t fit into nice ‘diversity’ boxes as required by many funders. What boxes do refugee projects, working with young people excluded from mainstream education and those living with dementia tick?”

Another wrote of the need to “further breakdown ‘disability’ in the same manner as we do with ‘ethnicity’”. “It is not OK or helpful to keep grouping all disabled people together as though everyone is the same,” they wrote “or to continue defining disability access only in terms of ramps and door width.”

One found the question “offensive”. They wrote: “People are people – I don’t prioritise them in those terms and certainly don’t operate a ‘protected characteristic hierarchy’!”

Another wrote: “I think it is more important to welcome ALL people in than to favour or discriminate one sector.”

Others were more conflicted by the issue. One wrote: “I am torn between saying ‘not important’ and ‘very important’, as if we are to have a truly inclusive society we will be blind to all the above characteristics. Diversity by its very word categorises people into little boxes and where do we stop?”

Another said: “We want to open our work to all but realise that a more targeted approach may often be needed.”

Attitudes to achieving workforce diversity

How would you describe your organisation’s attitude to achieving diversity in relation to its workforce

A lower priority

Diversity in relation to workforce was seen as slightly less important than diversity in relation to audiences or artistic work by respondents. Less than half (45%) indicated it was a top strategic priority for their organisation, compared with around 57% who said diversity in relation to audiences and artistic work were top priorities.


Despite this apparent difference in priorities, some identified a strong connection between the three areas. One respondent commented: “The richness of our exhibitions and events are dependent on the vibrancy of our workforce.” Another wrote simply: “A diverse workforce = diverse activity = diverse audiences.”

Some took issue with considering these areas separately. One commented: “None of your options reflect our attitude. Our attitude is more holistic – in that we don’t hugely differentiate in our approach to any of the three questions, especially as regards diversity (where the three are inseparable).”

Another said: “We are constantly considering how we reflect the society we live in through the artistic and managerial decisions we make. Diversity is not something we consider separately or and an add on, it is simply inherent.”

Perceptions of junior workers

Those in junior positions were less likely to think that achieving diversity was a priority for their organisation. 34% of junior workers said workforce diversity was a top strategic priority for their organisation, compared with 58% of senior workers.



Barriers to increasing workforce diversity

Which of the following hinder your organisation’s attempts to be more diverse?
  • A shallow pool of diverse candidates for work opportunities
  • Limited expertise in how to become a more diverse organisation
  • Senior management or trustees who do not value diversity

Recruitment methods

More respondents thought that ‘a shallow pool of diverse candidates for work opportunities’ was hindering their organisations’ attempts to be more diverse than any other suggested reason: 61% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with this, and just 22% disagreed.

A few respondents commented along the lines of one, who wrote: “the best candidate should get the job” and another who said: “[We] cannot employ diverse workers if they don’t apply.” Many used the comments section to explore the reasons why this shallow pool may be even shallower than it need be.

Some raised concerns about how arts organisations recruit new staff. One respondent wrote: “Not enough attention has been paid to getting the message out to diverse communities when jobs have been advertised in the past.”

One questioned whether enough was done to seek out female candidates for top positions: “There is a very strong mix of women and men taking management roles. When you reach the very senior echelons of leadership however, men still take centre stage. Perhaps they have the better skills; perhaps it is because the selection process simply could have had more guts in searching out an alternative but equally capable candidate.”

Another raised the issue of how only advertising online can limit the people reached, and one said more specifically: “I think there can also be a snobbery about advertising in Job Centres yet this may well be a market for gaining new people into the sector.”

The requirements made of new recruits by arts organisations was also a cause for concern. One respondent commented: “We create job descriptions that unwittingly narrow the field (levels of experience, years of service etc.).” Another said: “We also need to think about the obsession with professionalisation. This of course doesn’t mean that anyone can do everything we do but what it does acknowledge is that to be able to do these things can be developed without university etc.”

The ‘tyranny of normal’

Many commented on issues that may make people from diverse backgrounds less inclined to apply for jobs in the arts. One wrote: “If people don’t see themselves reflected in the artform, they are less likely to engage.” Another wrote: “There is now a ‘tyranny of normal’ and corporatisation of many arts organisations which means that unless you conform to a particular political and social class, you will always feel like an outsider.”

Many people used the comments to point out “elitism” within arts organisation, from “nepotism” and “everyday bias” to “institutional racism”.

Describing their own organisation, one respondent said: “Top brass want to keep it an exclusive, elite club.” Another wrote: “The organisation has been very inward looking and tends to recruit in its own likeness. It has a reputation for being all white, middle class and elitist.”

Almost a third said that limited expertise in how to become more diverse was a barrier for their organisation and this was reflected in some of the comments. One wrote: “Senior management seem aware there is a problem but at a total loss as to how to address it.”

Despite the comments, overall respondents disagreed that trustees and senior management were a barrier to their organisation’s attempts to be more diverse: 59% disagreed that trustees were part of the problem and 73% disagreed that senior management are a barrier.

However, junior workers were more than three times as likely to see senior management as a barrier to increasing diversity: 28% of junior workers (and 20% of mid-level workers) agreed that ‘senior management who do not value diversity’ were a hindrance to their organisation’s attempts to increase diversity, compared with just 8% of senior workers.

Junior workers were also more likely to think a lack of expertise in their organisation was hindering diversity: 40% agreed this was a barrier, compared with 25% of senior workers.


One respondent commented: “I can only assume the organisation’s senior staff and board do not value diversity, given that in the language surrounding the topic, it is still spoken of as an ‘issue’ rather than a positive, strategic aim. Although to be fair, given the lack of diversity amongst senior decision-makers, there could be a reluctance to spark debate on a conversation they feel unqualified to have.”

Financial barriers

Another respondent, who described themselves as being from a culturally diverse and low socio-economic background, wrote about their personal experience: “The main factor that initially prevented me from entering the arts was my parents. My parents’ issues were that the arts do not lead to a financially viable / secure future.”

Many respondents agreed this was a barrier. One wrote: “If the arts world was better paid, we would attract more diversity.”

Financial issues were particularly seen as a barrier to entry into the arts. One wrote: “Only those who can work for free for several years after graduating stand a chance.” Another pointed out, “disabled people are additionally affected by this since very few organisations are prepared to put access measures in place for volunteers or interns”.

The arts in schools

One respondent said that “the lack of reasonably paid career paths in the arts” not only impacts who enters the arts, but who studies relevant subjects in higher education. For many the sidelining of the arts in schools was a big concern. Another commented: “We won’t have more diversity in the sector until the UK’s education system improves its record with the arts.”

One respondent was concerned about the rising cost of higher education: “You have to be increasingly well resourced to get to professional education/training and pursue a career in the arts in the first place.”

Another warned: “If we don’t invest in cultural education we risk a generation of young people and parents/school leaders who do not associate the arts as a viable employment option, I’m really worried about the talent pipeline for the future.”

Improving diversity


What should be done to improve diversity in the cultural sector?

  • Quotas relating to staff
  • Incentives to increase the diversity of those entering arts careers
  • Targeted initiatives to boost diverse organisations
  • Financial incentives by funders to improve diversity
  • Financial penalties by funders for poor diversity
  • Staff training


The majority of respondents did not support the idea of quotas relating to staff: 43% said quotas should probably or definitely not be introduced, compared with 25% who thought they should be introduced (with the remainder saying they should possibly be introduced, or that they had no opinion).

However, the overall figure masks significant differences in the view of white respondents and those who identified as ‘BME / other’. BME respondents were much more likely to support the idea of workforce quotas: 45% thought they should probably or definitely be introduced, compared with 30% who were against them.


Despite this, the vast majority of comments about quotas were critical of them. One called them “divisive” and another said they would lead to “suspicion and resentment on both sides”.

Their effectiveness was called into question by one respondent, who wrote: “In large organisations they can just meet any targets by employing the people they need in the menial and low paid jobs to meet any quotas so that is no good.” Others questioned how they would work when the diversity of the population varies so much around the country.

Another warned that “simplistic use of quotas” can favour “educated and economically advantaged individuals in those target group, rather than genuinely opening up new opportunities”.

One respondent took a firm stance: “Measuring diversity of the workforce is not appropriate – it’s a reflection of the pipeline of talented individuals rather than the organisation’s own approach.”

Some were more positive. One respondent wrote: “Many in the sector claim ‘quotas don’t work’. Have they tried them? They seem to be working well at the BBC.” Others agreed they could be a way to “fast-track diversity”, one wrote: “It may be that a clumsy tool like [quotas] is needed to get the ball rolling.”

Some questioned whether they would only be a “temporary fix”. One respondent wrote: “As soon as any requirement is removed, things quickly fall back to how they were previously though, in fairness, there may be opportunities for eyes to be opened once doors are opened.”

Many agreed with one respondent who said quotas “do not tackle the core of the problem which runs far deeper and is far more fundamental than I think many wish to acknowledge.” Another wrote: “I have always been against positive discrimination as I feel it leads to more segregation rather than less. In a truly accepting and diverse society we should not have to talk about it in this way. People are more than these characteristics and to single them out based on them is a very dangerous, albeit well meaning, thing.”

Where does the problem lie?

Some respondents commented about the need to identify whether a lack of diversity in the arts workforce is caused by a lack of people entering the arts or discrimination within arts organisations themselves. One respondent wrote: “I think we need more evidence about whether it is a pipeline issue or a discrimination issue.” Others echoed this with calls for “large scale research into potential barriers”.

Employment practices

Some respondents shared practical suggestions for changes to employment practices that may help attract candidates from more diverse backgrounds.

One wrote: “We have removed the need for a degree for most posts and made other policy and practice changes to the way we work.”

Another suggested “advertising vacancies in places where a diverse range of people will see it”; “Finding ways to remove discrimination before an applicant has even been seen, for example, because of their age, gender, or the sound of their name”; and “providing regular awareness training”.


The majority of respondents agreed that more staff training should be done to help improve diversity in the arts: 81% were for it and only 4% were against.

One respondent called it “key” and another said: “I think that help via training to increase diversity will be the most important thing to do and I think that ideally everyone needs the training: not just a selected person from each organisation.”

However, some did express doubts. One respondent from Birmingham said their organisation struggles to attract a diverse workforce despite training.

Another, who said they had “created and delivered professional development initiatives for increased diversity within the arts in the UK”, wrote: “Training is not the answer, it has not worked.” They added: “In a combative and fierce environment – the outcome tends to be new staff that reflect the current status quo.”

One respondent thought the issue went beyond training: “For me, there is something missing here in this list of questions – which is about the need to fundamentally change hearts as well as minds about valuing diversity.”

Targeted initiatives

The suggestion of ‘targeted initiatives to boost diverse organisations’ was a popular one amongst the survey respondents: 80% were for this idea and only 5% against it. The same was true of ‘incentives to increase the diversity of those entering arts careers’, which 81% were for and 7% against.

Ideas for initiatives ranged from further support for employers of people with disabilities – “as the current Access to Work schemes have their limitations”; schemes to help arts organisations offer paid internships and apprenticeships to improve access for those from lower socio-economic groups; bursaries for graduates from diverse backgrounds looking to start a career in the arts; networking schemes; an exchange programme for trustees, “to increase understanding of those with limited experience of disadvantage”; a mentoring scheme for organisations with a poor record on diversity; and leadership development programmes for people from diverse backgrounds.

One respondent said: “It would help if NPOs had a pot of money they could apply to cover additional costs to provide greater diversity – whether extra costs for recruitment, or for the delivery of work.” Another emphasised the need for “a long term, systemic response not tokenistic short term ‘funding opportunities’”.

However, some raised concerns about targeted initiatives. One respondent wrote: “Taking part in a diversity programme made me more different and labelled me as ‘other’ for the very first time.”

Another said: “We had disabled apprenticeship programme but being so identified because of your equality characteristic can raise a number of issues for those who are disabled who don’t want to continually be described and labelled in that way.”

Carrot and stick

Respondents generally approved of the suggestion of ‘financial incentives by funders to improve diversity’ (63% for; 17% against), but rejected the idea of ‘financial penalties by funders for poor diversity’ (29% for; 50% against).

One respondent said: “More carrot, less stick here: organisations are under a lot of pressure, with extremely limited capacity, and beating them into submission will only create resentment towards the people we are trying to help gain a footing.” Others were sceptical about how penalties could be administered.

However, respondents who identified as BME / other were twice as likely to support the idea of penalties: 50% said penalties should be introduced, compared with 24% of respondents who identified as white. BME respondents were also more likely to support ‘naming and shaming’ those with a poor track record of diversity: 52% of BME respondents voted in favour of this, compared with 24% of white respondents.




While the survey found that most arts organisations consider workforce diversity to be important, in the sector as a whole, workforce diversity is not considered to be as high a priority as diversity of artistic work or audiences. This raises questions about the links between the arts workforce, artistic work and audiences, and the extent to which those working in the arts are recognising these links.

Many respondents indicated that their organisations prioritise diversity in relation to ethnicity, disability and gender, but when it comes to workforce diversity the comments suggest that social class may be at the heart of the problem, rather than specific protected characteristics.

Among the respondents, junior workers were less likely than their bosses to believe diversity was a priority in their organisations. This disparity could be down to senior workers’ failure to communicate what they’re trying to achieve. But the fact that junior workers were also more likely to identify a lack of expertise and see senior management or trustees as barriers to achieving diversity suggests they do not think their managers are doing enough, or that they are assessing their organisation’s commitment to diversity based on the results being achieved – or not – rather than the effort their managers are putting in.

The survey found many barriers to increasing diversity in the arts workforce, and these can roughly be divided into two types: the actions and prejudices of arts organisations, and issues within the wider workforce pipeline. Respondents indicated an openness to new initiatives that could improve diversity in the workforce, but showed a preference for incentives over penalties. Overall, respondents voted in favour of targeted initiatives, staff training and financial incentives by funders, but were against quotas, financial penalties and naming and shaming.

However, the difference between the responses of those from a white background and those from a BME background about what should be done to improve diversity in the arts workforce indicates a frustration at the effectiveness of measures that have been taken in the past. In contrast to white respondents, BME respondents overall voted marginally in favour of staff quotas, financial penalties by funders and naming and shaming arts organisations with a poor track record of diversity.

Some are optimistic that targeted initiatives, staff training and changes to recruitment and employment practices could make a difference to workforce diversity, but there are wider issues affecting the pipeline of people into the sector, which those working in the arts have limited power to influence. These include the sidelining of the arts in schools and rising cost of higher education, which mean that fewer young people are being given the resources and encouragement to study for a career in the arts.

The picture is complex, and it seems the sector is a long way from a consensus on the best way forward. But at least it is clear that an arts workforce that is “representative of the population of the country” is something that the vast majority aspire to. That’s not a bad place to start.

Click to read ArtsProfessionals latest news, research and feature on diversity in the arts

Download AP Pulse: Diversity in the arts full report (.pdf)

Frances Richens is Editor of ArtsProfessional

A photo of Frances Richens


If you're interested in this topic, read this excellent blog from Sam Spence, Assistant Head of Service, about her leadership journey and what she thinks needs to happen to create a more culturally diverse workforce: http://network.youthmusic.org.uk/posts/building-culturally-diverse-workforce