Sutton Trust alum Sofia Lewis explores the barriers facing those from under-represented backgrounds when entering the creative industries and why it is vital to open up access. 

Apply to A Writing Chance, an initiative to support new and aspiring writers whose voices have historically not been heard in publishing and the media, by Friday 26th March. Includes a £1500 bursary and one-to-one mentoring with industry leaders. 

At the beginning of the month, a journalist for the NFL Network was making headlines around the world.

But it wasn’t for what she’d been covering on the football field. Instead, she’d reignited a debate on Twitter about what it really takes to ‘make it’ in the creative industries in 2021.

The journalist had tweeted out an unpaid opportunity for broadcast journalism students to her 160k+ followers. Despite receiving immediate backlash, the journalist insisted that it was normal – perhaps even a badge of commitment – to start off on low or no pay in sports journalism. She claimed, “There is a reason not everyone makes it in this business,” and that she didn’t “have time for those of you who don’t understand grind,” – and she was backed by colleagues sharing similar views.

But is failing to secure your big break in journalism – and the creative industries at large – really just down to not working hard enough? 

Or, instead, if we dig deeper, might we find that there exists a range of barriers that often make these industries inaccessible? And, if that’s the case, isn’t it crucial that we do everything we can to open up access to the creative sector for everyone – rather than perpetuate an elitist system of unpaid labour?

Routes into the creative industries: A level playing field?

No one person – not least a reporter on Twitter – should be scapegoated for the problems of the creative industries. Saying that, it’s easy to see why this particular debate has struck a chord with many, particularly those of us on the other side of the pond in the UK.

Compared with technical and vocational work, or other industries offering a wide range of graduate schemes and entry-level roles, clear-cut pathways into the creative industries are relatively few and far between.

This means that gaining work experience becomes ever-more important for those who are trying to get on the first rung of the career ladder.

But given that 70% of internships are reported to be unpaid, it’s no shock that those from lower-income backgrounds are often held back from pursuing these opportunities – and it’s not for lack of trying.

In fact, according to Sutton Trust research, 43% of middle-class graduates had taken an internship compared to 31% of working-class graduates.

“Middle-class graduates were more likely to be funded by parents, have savings and use personal connections to obtain internships.

Those from working-class backgrounds were more likely to work a paid job to subsidise their internship and obtain them through an educational institution,” the report stated.

What’s more, the casualisation of work in the creative sector specifically is also a major barrier for those from lower-income backgrounds.

“Not only are these arenas disproportionately dominated by the privileged […], but the precarious nature of the work itself – often freelance, short-term, poorly paid, and reliant on informal networks – tilts decisively in favour of those insulated by the bank of mum and dad,” says Sam Friedman, a sociologist at the LSE, writing in The Guardian this year.

Add to this the risk that unpaid internships will increase in the wake of the economic downturn, alongside growing competition for those opportunities that are paid, and it seems evident that entry into the creative industries is far from a level playing field.

Why opening up access to the creative industries matters

All of that is not to mention the intersecting challenges that those from working-class and lower-income backgrounds often face due to historic under-representation in the creative industries, including but not limited to ethnicity, disability, gender identity and religious beliefs.

For example, just 0.2% of British journalists are Black (compared to 3% of the population) and 0.4% of British journalists are Muslim (compared to nearly 5% of the population). This means that those setting the news agenda and national conversations do so through a relatively narrow prism of experience – something that isn’t conducive to robust journalism that challenges structural inequalities.

And now, all of this comes against the background of the pandemic, when the creative industries seem more vital than ever.

From literature to live TV, long-form features to feature films, during a year when we’ve faced one of the greatest challenges of modern times, we’ve relied on the arts to make us laugh, cry, and escape to other worlds – even when most of us have been stuck within our very own four walls.

That’s why, now more than ever, we deserve to hear stories from every part of the four nations, written by people from every background. We deserve a creative sector that is truly representative of the UK, so that we can shine a light on untold stories and experiences, illuminate truths and challenge injustices.

For too long, progress and success in the creative industries hasn’t corresponded to talent and hard work – despite some suggesting otherwise. The solution must be to work together to open up access so that we can all benefit from a richer culture.

And, once people get in, we must give them the tools and pathways to get on. We need people from under-represented backgrounds in influential, leadership and decision-making positions to ensure that the creative industries continue to bring a wide range of stories and perspectives to the communities they serve.

Sofia Lewis is a freelance journalist, translator and creative, and Sutton Trust alum (UK Summer School 2013).

She is working with New Writing North and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on ‘A Writing Chance’, an initiative to support new and aspiring writers from under-represented backgrounds to break into the creative industries with a £1500 bursary, one-to-one mentoring and publication in national outlets.

Submissions close on Friday, March 26th. Apply here.

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