Why the culture sector needs to move away from inclusive recruitment

Ceri Sunu is the Director of Brabble, an inclusive recruitment consultancy supporting creative organisations to design bias-breaking recruitment processes.  

In the spirit of transparency, let me start with a confession:

I really hate the term “inclusive recruitment”.

Since a quick glance at my LinkedIn profile would reveal that my headline description includes the title “Inclusive Recruitment Trainer”, you’d be forgiven for wondering if this is some sort of weird exercise in self-castigation (spoiler alert: it isn’t).

To be clear, what irks me isn’t the terminology itself, but more the fact that we even need to use it. Shouldn’t recruitment just be inclusive?

Of course, it should be. But the fact is, it isn’t. Despite more than a decade’s worth of initiatives and interventions designed to enable the arts, culture and creative industries to become more diverse, progress towards meaningful representation and inclusion continues to remain fist-clenchingly slow. In their Creative Majority report published in 2021, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Creative Diversity found that despite representing only 3.5 per cent of the UK population, white, able-bodied, heterosexual men living in London are the most prevalent within the sector and tend to occupy a vast number of the most senior creative roles.  

What makes this so perplexing is that most of us would probably expect more from a sector which is generally pioneering and progressive. In a recent interview for The Lead, British-Nigerian historian David Olusoga notes that despite the arts, culture and creative sectors often deeming themselves to be liberal, we “are among the sectors that have failed most profoundly when it comes to diversity”. Ouch.  

So why aren’t we making as much progress as we’d hoped? If you’d asked the question in the early 2000s, the answer from most organisations would have been something resembling the “unicorn dilemma”, (i.e. “We’d love to have a more diverse workforce, but the talent just doesn’t exist”), or the Little Bo Beep conundrum, (“We know there are lots of talented sheep, we just don’t know where to find them.”)  Fast forward twenty something years and there are still numerous organisations making these same claims, but now we have far too many mentoring, internships, training schemes and other prescribed pathways into creative careers to render those sorts of arguments anything other than feeble (or perhaps even fabled).  

That’s not to suggest that training and mentoring initiatives are the bulletproof antidote that they perhaps set out to be. In fact, it could be said that many of these schemes have inadvertently done quite a bit of harm to inclusion efforts; firstly because the prevailing focus on upskilling so-called underrepresented groups propagates a narrative which conflates a lack of diversity with a lack of  talent –  to put it bluntly, that the reason we don’t have more women / Black / Asian / disabled / non-British / neurodivergent / working-class people in our sector is because they don’t have the skills we need. Of course, that may well be true in some cases, particularly given what we know about the financial and other socio-economic barriers to creative education. But to suggest that upskilling is the sole solution to the sector’s diversity issues is far too simplistic and gives those who continue to hold the most senior seats an easy way out that doesn’t require any real examination of the other barriers that they may be helping to create, or at the very least sustain. 

The second issue is that most of these schemes and initiatives are typically aimed at young people under or up to the age of 30. Now this doesn’t just bother me because I am over 30 and only stepped into my first professional role in the arts a few months before my 30th birthday. It bothers me because by focusing almost on exclusively on age, (and in more recent years, race and ethnicity), we are largely ignoring the numerous other nuanced, layered barriers that are preventing talented people from getting a foot in the door. What about career changers who have an eclectic mix of work experiences to bring to the table? Or those who have caring responsibilities, or lived experiences that would enrich our work? What is needed is an intersectional approach which reflects inequity in all its forms, rather than simply spotlighting the obstacles that are easy and comfortable for us to address. 

So how do we move forward? To begin with, we need to stop thinking of inclusion, and therefore inclusive recruitment and other inclusion practices as an added extra. In the same way that some pizza chains automatically make all their pizza bases available gluten free, recruitment processes should be designed to be inherently inclusive and to do that, they need to be built with equity at their heart from the outset. It’s been interesting, (read: worrying), to see the number of organisations even outside the creative industries who have withdrawn resources previously designated for diversity and inclusion in the name of cost cutting (think Zoom sacking off entire DEI teams). Given that many arts organisations often work to tight purse strings, the idea that companies with unfathomably large budgets are cutting DEI resource could be more than a little discouraging. The reality though is that many of the companies who are withdrawing investment now are remedying what were essentially knee-jerk investment decisions to begin with (largely in response to the social pressures that emerged following the heinous murder of George Floyd in 2020). Had DEI practices been properly embedded within core business functions rather than treated separately, they wouldn’t have been viewed as an “extra” to be cut loose during tough times. Inclusive practices such as inclusive recruitment should just be part of your normal business practices and the way you do things. 

The second thing is to move out of the survival mentality that has become ingrained in the culture sector’s collective mindset. By survival mentality, I’m referring to the “We-just-need-to-get-the-funding-to-deliver-this-project-and-get-the-audiences-through-the-door-so-we-can-justify-applying-for-more-funding-to-deliver-the-next-project” hamster wheel that we seem to be stuck on. The lack of inclusion in our sector’s business practices isn’t necessarily born out of an avoidance of these issues, but is more likely a symptom of the general negligence towards anything that isn’t the art itself. Findings from the Policy and Evidence Centre’s Good Work Review, the Film and TV Charity’s Looking Glass Report, as well as the BFI’s own 2022 Skills Review, all highlight multiple issues and failings by the sector to consistently meet the principles of good work practices in the broadest sense, so it’s no surprise that inclusion would also have suffered as part of this. But if we want to keep creating and find a way to do it sustainably, being deliberate about our business operations, including how we recruit and treat our teams is an absolute necessity. 

The final thing is to learn what works. Whilst initiatives such as the Arts Council’s Creative Case for Diversity and other such schemes reflect a well-intentioned sentiment to drive commitments to equity and inclusion, it has left the sector in the curious position of having demands placed upon it that most organisations simply aren’t equipped to meet. And why should they be? Few organisations have DEI specialists and / or HR teams with the expertise to steer and guide them. Unfortunately, this has led to lots of guess-work, second-hand wisdom and blunt approaches that haven’t achieved real change. We need to apply the same vim we’ve had about upskilling talent to upskilling ourselves in matters of inclusion. 

Inclusive recruitment really shouldn’t be anything special or distinct. It should just be recruitment. But until we make it the norm, it seems inclusive recruitment will just have to remain part of my working vocabulary.