Director's blog: Some thoughts on International Women's Day

The Lullaby Factory, Studio Weave - Photograph Jim Stephenson
The Lullaby Factory, Studio Weave - Photograph Jim Stephenson

On this International Women’s Day there is a lot to celebrate about the fact that culture, health and wellbeing is a field not just dominated by women in terms of numbers, but also more often than not led by women.

As part of our Roadmap to building a more equal alliance, last year we surveyed our membership (thank you to those of you who completed this). It turns out that our membership overwhelmingly identifies as female: 79.1% – with 1.5% of members self-defining as genderfluid, and 19.4% as male. Our regional champions are 94% female. Our Board is 83% female.

This will surprise no-one who knows the sector, though it’s helpful to have a figure to back it up.

There is much we would do well to unpack here. Some of it is perhaps about traditional conceptions of masculinity, and how much of this practice rests on making oneself vulnerable in one way or another (for more on this, see this webinar organised by the Cultural Institute at the University of Leeds towards the end of 2020). Some of it may relate to traditional ideas about the caring professions (our statistics also broadly reflect figures in the NHS, where 76.7% of 1.3 million NHS staff are women.) Some is perhaps about how women value their time, and the quasi-voluntary or voluntary nature of much of this work. But it’s also about the will to work in ways that challenge unsatisfactory norms – and the will to bring together sectors that have been split apart, to improve the way both work.

We want to celebrate the space the sector has built for women leaders, but we also have an urgent responsibility to think intersectionally – to understand the histories and currency that continues to make our culture and health sectors unsafe or irrelevant to so many.

Even as we celebrate the impacts of the arts, we need to ask why keyworkers are engaging less than they did before covid (Mak, Fluharty and Fancourt 2020). The Creative Industries Policy & Evidence Centre reported this year that just 16% of people in creative jobs are from working class backgrounds. Our CHWA survey suggests that 48% of our members self-define as working class. This is not by any means perfect but perhaps it signals a shift in a different direction. In terms of sexuality, too, our membership is a diverse group, with only 58.2% describing themselves as ‘straight’, as opposed to 94.6% nationally. Against that, compared to national data our membership has limited representation from people of African or Caribbean heritage and people of South, East, and South East Asian heritage. There is a more representative number of people with mixed heritage, but troublingly no representation from people of Gypsy, Roma and Irish Traveller heritage. Nor is CHWA’s membership representative of the percentage of the population identifying as disabled (16.4% versus 21%).

These are disparities we are seeking to understand and change through a variety of means including consultancy processes, changes to our structures, and also through public events like our upcoming conference (more on which below). We're also thrilled to see the Baring Foundation's launch of a new funding stream for mental health and the arts, specifically to support people of diverse heritages, and a new collaboration between the Race Equality Foundation and Flourishing Lives. We will do all we can to support these initiatives and more like them.

As we all know, the pandemic has made it clear that if you’re living with certain chronic health issues or certain kinds of disability, if you’re older, if you are poor, if you live in poorer parts of the country, your capacity to weather the storm has been dramatically impacted by everything from the government’s competence when it comes to public health messaging to your access to technology; and running through all these inequities is the imprint of structural racism. At the end of 2020 the Institute for Health Equity issued this plea:

We urge that the Government learns the lessons of the pandemic, prioritises greater equity and health, and works urgently to reduce the severity of the health crisis caused by the economic and social impacts of the pandemic and the societal response.

A series of health charities have pointed out that this plea has largely been ignored in this month’s budget statement. And at the same time, parts of government seem intent on curtailing vital debates in the cultural sector about this country’s pernicious colonial history. Without these open conversations how can we expect to build a representative sector?

It's been a rough year for so many of us. Everyone is tired, and low on imagination. It can be hard to push on with this weight set against the larger goal of challenging inequities.

And yet there are so many examples that can give us hope. We want to use our upcoming conference and awards to focus on these people and organisations who persist in challenging orthodoxy, in making change. Red Earth Collective in Birmingham, for example, works with the arts and through partnership with the NHS, with the third sector, with faith communities and higher education "to support and improve the mental health and well-being of marginalised and racialised communities.” Artists Zoë Palmer and Jennifer Farmer are using their Seasons for Change commission to bring together an intergenerational group of people of African heritage and British farmers, connecting climate justice and creative practice. The Happy Museum project and Derby Museums are both leading the way in connecting wellbeing and ecological activism. Esther Fox of Accentuate has launched Curating for Change to tackle the underrepresentation of D/deaf and disabled people in our Museums. Our partners Voluntary Arts and artist layla-roxanne hill are all helping us understand how the economy impacts our wellbeing. These are just a few of over 30 brilliant panellists and performers we are excited to hear from between 21 and 23 April.

Culture, health and wellbeing is not always radical – indeed there is always the risk of the arts being used to paper over structural cracks in society – but it is our responsibility to amplify work that seeks not to obscure problems, but to reveal them, challenge them, and ultimately to change them.