A new report warns organisations that “everyone you let in though the back door will disadvantage someone without those connections”.

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The arts sector needs to do more to support people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, a new report argues
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Weston Jerwood Creative Bursaries

Arts organisations should treat social class in the same way as identity markers protected by equality legislation in order to combat a “class crisis” in the sector, a new guide argues.

The report from independent funder Jerwood Arts and the Bridge Group consultancy says socio-economic background should be given the same consideration as ethnicity, disability and gender in recruitment and career development.

It recommends employers measure and report on socio-economic diversity, stop offering unpaid and unadvertised job opportunities and create a more inclusive work culture and recruitment process to diversify their staff. 

The toolkit also offers practical advice on how to achieve sustainable institutional change, based on research involving 110 arts organisations. It places the onus of responsibility on employers to take “a strategic rather than piecemeal approach to levelling the playing field for people from low income backgrounds”.

Weston Jerwood Creative Bursaries Director Kate Danielson told ArtsProfessional the kit showed “there are things you can do that don’t cost any money at all”.

“I have worked in the arts for a long time and I know how it was. You hired people who looked like you, sounded like you, people you thought you could go to the pub with. Now we know what the effect of that has been.”

Drive for data

The report says organisations should monitor socio-economic diversity, report their findings to national arts councils and other funders, and “advocate that it is taken as seriously as protected characteristics in support of a more diverse and inclusive arts sector”.

Danielson said it was inevitable that organisations would soon have to provide this data to their funders: “It’s coming down the line as a requirement, let’s face it,” she said.

Recent studies have underlined how creative occupations are largely held by people from higher socio-economic backgrounds. The report references last year’s Panic! report, which found that while working class people form 35% of the UK population, they held only 13% of roles in publishing, 18% in music, 12% of broadcasting jobs, and 21% of museum and gallery positions in 2018.

The Jerwood report adds that there is also strong evidence that people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to have the right networks and cultural references to get ahead.

“These challenges can often be more acute in the arts, since there are less defined career routes, often with limited job security,” the report says. 

It recommends asking employees four questions: what school they attended from age 11 to 16, whether they were eligible for a free school meal, what their parents’ experience of higher education is and what their jobs were when the employee was 14.

“If only one question is asked, number four, relating to parental occupation is the key indicator and the one to choose … because it is a strong predictor of adult outcomes, it is internationally applicable and response rates at employers across sectors have been relatively positive.”

Danielson said this method has already been used in accountancy, the civil service and the legal sector.

Recruiting for difference

Organisations need to think about how “everyone you let in though the back door will disadvantage someone without those connections”, the report says.

It argues unpaid and unadvertised job opportunities are “narrowing entry routes from the outset”, saying the sector should stop this practice – and pay for all positions over four weeks in length.

The report includes case studies from organisations that had reformed their recruitment practices to remove “arts jargon” and create more welcoming environments.

Bronwen Price, Deputy CEO of Literature Wales, said the agency’s job adverts now include a “day-in-the-life section”. The company interviews candidates in a café of their choice, provides the questions in advance, and works with its second-choice candidate to link them to wider literary networks.

“We challenge our preconceptions about the best candidate for roles,” said Price. “We’re increasingly focused on what skills and experience a candidate can bring to the organisation which we don’t already have.”

The report also called for an end to “informal sponsorship”, in which senior staff support newer colleagues who are likely to be the people most like them.

“Raise awareness and create a curious, caring culture where informal connections between those in positions of power to recruit, programme and select staff and artists can be questioned to ensure decisions are based on potential and not background.”

Inclusive culture

Research from Bridge Group “strongly suggests” that organisations need to change their culture rather than help underrepresented groups assimilate, the report says.

“When those from lower socio-economic backgrounds opt out of particular careers of professional and artistic routes, it is rarely about lack of ambition or awareness and more to do with battling feelings of not belonging – negotiating low but constant microaggressions in the workplace – and access to opportunities.”

Arts organisations are advised that avoiding “alienating” words like ‘disadvantage’ and ‘privilege’ can help foster a more inclusive culture, as can asking staff from lower socio-economic backgrounds what support they want.

“In what ways are they going to have to navigate things like ‘out of hours’ work, care for dependents, accent, dialect, dress codes, political discourses, after work social activities, locations and budgets?” the report asks.

Bridge Group Chief Executive Nik Miller said that “of all sectors, the arts must be where diversity and inclusion should be taken most seriously”.

“Works that explore, challenge and reflect contemporary society are naturally richer if they are informed by a wider range of social perspective and experiences.”

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