Talent is everywhere. Opportunity is not.

Beth Johnson, SIGN’s lead for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion reflects on the recent shift in public conscience and looks forward to how SIGN will help tackle inequality and discrimination in the screen industries

Over the last three months, social media has exploded with the testimonies of workers in the British screen industries talking about their experiences of inequalities. The stories being told, like that of TV production manager Richie West, are powerful, and painful, ranging from constant micro-aggressions to all-out discrimination. In his statement, West wrote:

Being Black and working in the TV industry means toeing the line. It means being silent when you hear somebody making a racially insensitive joke for fear of being labelled the “angry black man or woman” or “difficult to work with” and missing out on further job opportunities. It means being one of the only black people in a largely white office […]. It means not having your CV considered if you have a traditionally “ethnic” sounding name. It means having to listen to people discuss diversity in hiring and diversity in casting as if it’s a chore.

The beginning of June also saw female programme makers react angrily to yet another year of next-to-no BAFTA nominations. BECTU-BMC tweeted that ‘Across all awards categories this year, only around 3% are BAME men and even fewer are BAME women’.

Despite years of diversity schemes and programmes, very little has changed, particularly in the upper echelons of the industry, which is still made up largely of white, middle-class men. And yet, this moment has the potential to be a critical one. There is, finally, a public and sector-wide will to change, in response to the inequalities revealed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. What is needed however is deeds rather than words.

The Screen Industries Growth Network (SIGN) launched in March this year, the same month that workplaces up and down the country went into lockdown. For the screen sectors, Covid-19 has caused an unprecedented crisis – with productions halted, studios closed, staff furloughed or losing their jobs and income overnight. While many companies and screen sector workers have been able to continue to work (at least in some capacity), the struggle to survive, particularly amidst the freelance community, was and continues to be a significant challenge.

Yet, this crisis isn’t the only one impacting the screen industries. As Dave O’Brien (2020) recently stated in his written evidence to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee (DCMS) inquiry, the industry is, in many ways, already in crisis. Longstanding inequalities in the workforces of the screen sectors evidence that gender, ethnicity, social and economic status and geographic location are central characteristics by and through which inequalities are determined. These characteristics impact opportunities to both ‘get in’ to the industry, and to ‘get on’.

Speaking of Covid-19, O’Brien writes:

We are likely to see more women exiting the labour market (partially as a result of demands for childcare, and reflecting what happened in the film industry (Skillset 2009) after the 2008 recession); fewer ethnic minorities given leading positions; and fewer working class origin individuals across all sectors. In particular, early career creatives will struggle as key moments for career development, for example access to festivals and exhibitions, venues, and associated networks and finance, deprive them of the change to create a track record of success. Depending on the scale of the crisis, this could be a generation of lost talent.

What will SIGN do?

One of the first things I wanted to do as the lead for Diversity and Inclusion on SIGN, was map the workforce of the screen sectors in Yorkshire and the Humber to get to a clear picture of the diversity of the talent. What I’ve found however is a gap – one that cannot be stepped over. THERE IS VERY LITTLE DATA, and certainly none that gives a clear picture of regional diversity.

Why is this such a problem? Without clear, reliable, regional, data regarding the make-up of the screen sectors in Yorkshire and the Humber, it is difficult to determine the scale of inequalities, and work with industry to support change. National statistics, such as those produced by the BFI and ScreenSkills provide a concerning picture of the likely inequalities in the sector, but geographic specificity, all-be-it understood as part of a broader, screen sector eco-system, is essential.

While the much-publicised launch of Project Diamond in 2016 by the Creative Diversity Network, works, for example, to collect diversity data from Public Service Broadcasters and Sky, the current completion rate is just 28%. Ultimately, the scheme is voluntary.   

In the BFI’s recent evidence to the DCMS Committee on the impact of Covid-19 (2020), they noted, amongst other things, the issues caused by the fact that ‘theatrical releases are being held back’. This notion of being ‘held back’ is an important one. Inequalities in opportunity have led to workers with certain characteristics being held back for years. And it’s not right.

Talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not. Change is long overdue.

For more information on the evolving work of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion work of SIGN, please visit the workstream webpages.