MONEY STORIES | How Can Re-Writing our Gendered Money Stories Help Creative Industries Thrive?

Recently, I came across this brain teaser: A father and his son are in a car accident. The father is killed and the son is seriously injured. The son is taken to the hospital where the surgeon says, “I cannot operate, because this boy is my son.” How is this possible?

You may find the answer (that the surgeon is the boy’s mother) obvious, but, believe it or not, most people struggle with this “riddle.” I sure did. It is undeniable that our understanding of gender is strongly associated with different contexts.

As #metoo, #wagedisparity, #blacklivesmatter and other movements are laying bare, we’re just beginning to understand how pervasive bias can be in informing our assumptions, our behavior, and the outcomes we achieve.

In last month’s Modernist Money Stories, we gathered some of Portland’s smartest creative leaders in order to share our experiences around the role of gender bias in the industry by asking this question:

How could we help creative industries thrive by discovering and re-writing our gendered money stories?

We organized the discussion around the following arc of questions:

  1. Visualize a successful person in the creative industry. List 10 words to describe them.
  2. Think of something you overheard, inferred, or learned about money when you first started working in your industry. Why did it stick with you?
  3. Give an example of a group that has challenged and overcome bias in some aspect of their work. It could be a social movement, government, company, or community. It can be past or present, real or fictional. What elements allowed them to accomplish this?
  4. Imagine an ideal structure or system for creative work that is free from gender bias. What does it look and feel like? What money stories would we learn in that structure or system?
  5. What is one small step you could take today to make this vision real?

Unfortunately, most talk about gender bias centers white women’s experience, siting the double bind women experience in the workplace. Though our conversation focused on gender, we knew it was important to remember that each bias pattern changes when combined with race, ability, sexual orientation, class, and other aspects of our identities. This intersectional experience means that a woman of color can experience quadruple bindsin the workplace.

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Our conversation brought up many bright spots in an industry that is still plagued by gender inequality (only 11% of creative directors are women, but it used to be 3%) and reasons for hope. We recalled the Boston Symphony’s blind auditions to combat unconscious bias and considered the possibilities that “blind” interviews could bring to other industries. We learned about charitable foundations challenging the traditional top-down approach to philanthropy by choosing inspiring grantees to give large grants for long periods of time with few strings attached. We heard about a creative firm that reviewed its compensation numbers for the male and female employees and simply put up the funds to close their wage gap then and there (and committed to follow-up reviews every few years).

We gave a nod to the “Shitty men in media list” creator and her youthful boldness as well as the Fab 5 of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and their willingness to embrace (and makeover) men from many different walks of life. Unfortunately, we also had to acknowledge the pernicious appeal of “avoiding” or going around bias rather than challenging it openly and then overcoming it. 

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In response to the ideal structure question, we considered the value of creating space for deep thought. Time to pause and reflect can be a great asset as we work on recognizing and confronting our own implicit biases. We also discussed the possibility of new approaches to organizational hierarchy and involving all staff in the creative process. Temporarily cycling through all the roles in a company could be an interesting way to foster teamwork and synergy between various functions. Much time was spent in praise of mentoring and its more robust cousin, sponsoring. Many of the attendees were active mentors and gladly re-committed to channelling those efforts in service of greater inclusion and equality.

In response to this fruitful conversation, I am committing to engaging an expert this quarter to help the Modernist team develop a shared language and methodology for workplace creativity. Other participants will be exploring the aforementioned “blind” interview approach, creating safe spaces for all questions, revamping existing mentorship programs, and working on their awareness of their implicit biases. Many in the room were active mindfulness practitioners and reaffirmed their commitments to that internal work.

I already can’t wait to see the changes that these efforts will bring to the creative industry. As always, I hope you will consider answering the above questions for yourself. Then, hold your own Money Stories conversation in your community, so we can all work towards a collective future that is equitable and inclusive for all. I would love to hear about your discoveries in the comments!