Why employers need to pay the price to support socioeconomic diversity

Natasha Khan is the Acting Managing Director at Creative Mentor Network, a mentoring and training charity supporting socioeconomic diversity in the creative industries. 

Why socioeconomic diversity needs the Living Wage

At Creative Mentor Network, pay is a topic that comes up a lot in our work. It is an area we talk about with our mentees and an area they look to their mentors for support with; from knowing how to negotiate pay and ask for at least the real Living Wage, understanding what their salary should be, and having the confidence to advocate for themselves.

The young people we work with often don’t know what they should be getting paid and often don’t have the confidence to negotiate salaries. 

The UK creative industry is not socioeconomically diverse or inclusive; only 16% of those in the creative industry are from working-class backgrounds despite making up nearly 40% of the UK workforce. Those who do manage to get into the industry then face many barriers around progression and pay. In the UK there is a class pay gap that exists of 17%. 

Why is it that someone from a lower socioeconomic background is less likely to access work or excel in the creative industries? It’s not as simple as being able to point to one reason. It’s a mix of factors that affect people over different stages of their lives. From lack of exposure to the arts growing up, poor careers education at school, and the challenge of finding a job in an industry fueled by informal recruitment networks (the 'who you know'). 

As employers, a lot of these barriers are out of their control. They can't change the school curriculum, they can’t improve early exposure to the arts. By the time someone is ready to enter the workforce, it is too late to change the past, but there are things that can be done that can impact people’s lives, and career opportunities, today. 

But there are three key changes employers can make to create a more inclusive industry.

  1. Abolish working for free

No other industry in the UK relies as heavily on free work as the creative industry. From unpaid (and underpaid) internships, work for “exposure”, and needlessly long interview tasks, working for free isn’t possible for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who can’t afford not to work. Without a financial safety net, like the “Bank of Mum and Dad”, investing time in work without pay isn’t possible as many people simply can’t afford it. 

Those who can afford to work for free get an unfair advantage, as they then are able to get experience others can’t, which puts them in the lead for jobs. 

  1. Pay the real living wage

Because jobs in the creative industries are so sought after, low starting salaries are too common for entry-level roles. Paying a real living wage means people can afford to work and also afford to live, not just survive. It opens up entry level jobs to people who don’t have the cushion of savings or the parental assistance to take up a minimum wage job.

It’s not a surprise that paying people fairly is more likely to result in happier staff, but it will result in better work too.

Two women sat down talking in front of some shelves
  1. Stop hiding salaries

Language used around money can be incredibly alienating, especially in the working world. It’s far too common that salaries aren’t listed on jobs, instead labeling salaries as “competitive”. But what does this mean, and more importantly, who is it competitive for? 

Often this means that those with the knowledge and experience can negotiate higher salaries, but for many, it means they are being undersold and not being paid equally to their peers (or their peers aren’t being paid fairly and employers are hiding what a new hire gets). 

However, for many seeing a job without a salary will deter many applicants as they need to know the job can pay the bills and it’s worth their time applying.  

For creative companies, a diverse workforce is essential to creating work that authentically represents its customers. By unknowingly gate-keeping entry-level roles into the industry for only those who can afford it, you’re not only missing out on a vast proportion of talent, but it’s likely you’re missing out on sales too. 

Socioeconomic diversity isn’t a protected characteristic in the UK, and as a result, this isn’t talked about enough. For many employers, it’s not a priority, but it’s something that needs to be taken more seriously to ensure opportunities are more accessible and we can continue our work to break the class ceiling in the UK creative industries. Paying the real Living Wage is a key factor to solving this. 

Working with our partners, we ensure that only jobs that meet Living Wage Guidelines are listed on our Jobsboard to ensure we aren’t sharing anything our community can’t afford to do, and so they are aware of this barrier. 

Find out more about the work we are doing to break the class ceiling in the UK creative industries through mentoring on our website here and join us for a webinar about socioeconomic diversity in creative workplaces, Mind the Class Gap, on 15th May 2024.