DID Fest: Gender & Ethnic Diversity in the Creative Industry

Last week I attended Diversity in Digital Festival, or ‘DID Fest’ for short, a month-long, citywide festival in Birmingham, made up of incredible events that aim to inspire behaviour change and close the gender diversity gap in Digital.

I went to talk on ‘Gender & Ethnic Diversity in the Creative Industry’ at the Steamhouse, where discussions centred on questions of gender, ethnic diversity and inequality in the creative and cultural industries.

The conversation was informed by a report on ‘Diversity and Cultural Leadership in the West Midlands’ delivered by Dr Karen Patel (Research Assistant and Visiting Lecturer, School of Media at Birmingham City University) and Dr Annette Naudin (Course Director in MA Media and Cultural Studies). The report highlighted the lack of diversity in cultural leadership positions in the region, the findings of which I have provided at the end of this article if you are interested to find out more.

The discussion was then opened up to panellists Indy Hunjan, founder of KalaPhool and Cultural Programmes Consultant at the National Trust, and Dr Yemisi Akinbobola, Course Director of MA Global Media Management at Birmingham City University and founder of African Women in the Media.

They provided their perspectives on gender, ethnic diversity and inequality in cultural leadership which have been summarised below.

Data and the issues of data collecting

There is a perception of the creative sector as being accessible, cool, egalitarian, and experimental which encourages students to get involved – but in many respects, this can actually hide discrimination through its apparent informality.

In revealing some of these inequalities, data can be really useful and even a lack of data can highlight an issue. However, often this has the opposite effect. For example, the data collected from ‘tick box’ exercises contributes to this problem if you fit into more than one box or equally none at all.

Indy: “I actively never tick the brown box, my parents are from India and I live in Lemington Spa. I do find this kind of data collecting disingenuous and the tone of language really exclusory. It doesn’t allow for an honest and authentic conversation, and on from that one-time assessment there isn’t a follow up of how is the landscape changing. The quality of data is problematic, as is the mode of categorisation.”

Ultimately data isn’t fact. There are stories and voices that aren’t being heard; if you’re not considered a real business, you’re not counted in the data (as shown in the report), which means there is a whole load of people who are not a part of the cultural and creative industry.

An audience member mentioned that being from Lebanon originally and woman of Arab descent, she has to tick a lot of boxes or often with forms she fills out in the UK she has to tick ‘other’. This is very damaging to actually qualify as ‘other’, you can’t achieve more otherness than that.

The point was raised that in an attempt to counteract that, people engage in self-diversification and become more diverse, more a person of colour than they need to be, in order to get access to things or to be perceived a certain way. This impacts the cultural products that they produce, not only their identity and sense of self, but in terms of culture and artistic expression. Ultimately, there are challenges if you end up going down that route.

Nevertheless, it was highlighted that having any kind of data in the first place is much more than other cultures have access to, it’s a good place to start, and at least it gives us some kind of impression of the existing landscape, however accurate that may be. The facts at face value can be used to start conversations and get attention, and then once you have that attention you can begin to drill down into more finite details. In the present day, the globalisation of information will facilitate conversations that emanate from this shared data.


The creative industry is full of freelancers and self-employed people working in an entrepreneurial way, and to think about these people as leaders or in relation to the term leadership throws up an interesting dichotomy when you consider that a leader tends to mean a person running a large company or organisation.

Indy spoke about how she struggles with the idea of calling herself a leader and instead she feels a responsibility to support and empower people, walking side by side with her peers. A member of the audience pointed out that the issue with owning your identity as a leader and the discomfort one feels talking about themselves within those terms is a trait more common amongst women than men, generally speaking. They also raised the question of whether women should occupy this space or role in a more assertive manner.

As a member of the faculty at Birmingham City University, Yemisi noticed at graduation she was the only non-white female lecturer on the stage, and she felt a huge responsibility to attend all future ceremonies for purposes of representation and to inspire other non-white, minority students. She feels more comfortable with the idea of being a leader, in fact, she feels a duty to encourage and motivate others, especially considering that in her culture women feel more comfortable taking a back seat.

Type of work

There is a gendered association with expertise. Women traditionally do more feminised forms of craft that are based in the home, but the people that become famous in these fields are often men, as you can see in the culinary world for example.

Role models

Yemisi: “Often in media, film and tv, leading female fictional characters in a position of power are demonised or presented as psychotic rather than driven or tenacious. Equally, there is a lack of representation of coloured people in the theatrical arts in particular, efforts are being made but more needs to be done.”

As a mother Yemisi is keen to provide her children with media content that contains black female characters and fairy princesses so that they too can have role models they can identify with, giving them the confidence to be something better.

Interestingly both Yemisi and Indy commented that, through no conscious selection, all of their mentors throughout life have been men, which they both felt is in itself is problematic, and perhaps conjures up the issue of women supporting women.

Indy: “In terms of my own role models, my dad bought me and my two sisters up in a Traditional Punjabi / Sikh family be really strong and to use your voice.”

What can be done?

Indy: “To instil change in student we need to take them out of the beautiful university buildings, out into communities and have discussions with different people. In the National Trust Club in the cultural calendar, there are a huge amount of activities happening in and around Birmingham around Ede, Diwali, and Caribbean Festivals. Strive for different visibility and put yourself in a different space, it doesn’t have to be heavy duty, just go and chat with people. It’s about understanding where opportunities are best placed, I find that’s quite fractured, certainly in Birmingham and it’s a problem that seems to be quite impenetrable. It’s about cultivating conversations of value within the creative industry early on, and how you do that is a conversation that needs more transparency.”

Karen: “I think we need to change the cultural perceptions of the creative industry, embed this new found data in the curriculum, change the curriculum, and bring in in a diverse range of guests speakers”.

I caught up with Anette after the event and she had a few words to say about the month-long festival and her involvement: 

“For us, because we have both done quite a lot of research in relation to diversity, inequalities in the creative industries, as soon as we knew that the festival was taking place it was really important for us to contribute to the debate about International Women’s Day and some of the inequalities in relation to women specifically to those working in the creative industries. It was a really good platform. This is one in many events, we don’t really see it in isolation, we have just done a big evaluation of ethnic diversity funded projects through Birmingham City Council, so we’ve got a dissemination event for that on 4th April so it’s an ongoing conversation and that’s our contribution.”


The Report

The 3 key findings included:

  1. While the diversity of boards and senior management in Non-profit organisations (NPOs) are improving, the same cannot be said of Major Partner Museums (MPMs). There is little data on diversity in the heritage and museum sector, the data which does exist points to an even less diverse workforce and senior leadership than the rest of the cultural sector.
  2. There was even less data available for the West Midlands region in relation to the cultural workforce. Birmingham City Council does not include the creative or cultural industries as a category in its labour market data, and it is difficult to see which existing categories it could fit into, which is of major concern.
  3. Their own analysis of leaders in West Midlands NPOs from ACE’s data found that out of 48 organisations in total, 54% (26) are led by women, 16% (8) are led by people from ethnic minority backgrounds. Again however, the focus is on NPOs and we know very little about self-employed and freelance cultural workers who are not based at an institution, but carry out leadership activities.

5 recommendations to address inequalities in cultural leadership:

  1. Collect more data on cultural leadership in the region in more detail at national and regional level, particularly with regards to diversity and leadership.
  2. Data on freelance workers in the region could be obtained by engaging with leaders involved with RE:Present16 and ASTONish, and tap into relevant networks from there.
  3. Refine future regional surveys and studies to include the cultural industries as a distinct occupational area, which at the moment it is not.
  4. Empower SMEs and freelancers who are involved in cultural leadership activities in the region with events or training courses
  5. Promote role models, campaigns and initiatives such as Coventry City of Culture 2021 and the #WMGeneration campaign to bring Channel 4 to Birmingham are both potentially useful opportunities to promote diversity in cultural leadership in the region.

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