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  • Writer's pictureMarsaili Mainz

Unspeakable Inequalities

Intersectional Representation in The Institutional Powerhouses of The Media and Fashion Systems

In today's globalised world, the fashion and media industries are facing a critical need to authentically represent the diverse socio-cultural, environmental, and economic realities of contemporary society (Gill, 2015). The long-standing dominance of white-centric narratives and patriarchal norms in these industries is increasingly seen as outdated and misaligned with our dynamically evolving globalised mediascapes (Gopaldas and Siebert, 2018).

Central to this shift is the recognition of Africa's rising influence in the fashion landscape, spotlighting the continent's rich heritage and unique perspectives and the drive for Africa's Fashion Future, with designers such as Michael Kors as an early adopter and Naomi Campbell, support advocating Aspire Fashion Shows and challenging the opportunity of an African Vogue (Digital Dazed, 2018). This change is not just about style—it is a more profound call to understand intersectionality in the context of global feminism (Gill and Sharff, 2019). It is about acknowledging and valuing different communities' diverse socio-cultural identities and needs. Therefore, the traditional portrayal of consumer culture, predominantly through a white, Western lens, no longer represents the multifaceted nature of global consumers (Gopaldas and Siebert, 2018). This realisation prompts pivotal questions about the gendered and racial social construction of identity and representation: What does it mean to be 'White', 'Black', 'Asian', and 'Hispanic' in a global context, and how do consumers identify with these labels? (Collins, 2019).

For these reasons, addressing systemic change towards equality, diversity, and inclusivity is crucial to dismantling these entrenched intersectional barriers—not only from a socio-political, historical, economic, and cultural standpoint but also for business innovation and sustainable growth (Stewart, 2022). Nevertheless, the prevailing notion that governments and corporations dictate and construct societal norms and opportunities reflects a patriarchal, colonial mindset (Clean Clothes Campaign, 2022). However, there is slow progress within such a transformative era, where working collaboratively as a global community, learning from diverse cultures, and understanding unique expressions and identities are crucial to thriving in business and society. However, the worsening climate of systemic racism and misogyny highlights the urgency of these issues. (Piccin., et al, 2021, Collins, 2019 and Schroeder and Borgerson, 2015). Yet, the rise in misogyny and the threat felt by some in dominant and marginalised groups call for a significant overhaul of our societal systems (Schroeder and Borgerson, 2015).

Fashion and the media, as powerhouse institutions of communication, have historically represented the realities of contemporary society and thus play a vital role. Both uniquely can address intersectional representation and systemic change towards equality, diversity, and inclusivity. But do they, can they, will they? Is feminist intersectional solidarity the path forward (Collins, 2019). Learning from the experiences of black communities and recognising their history, values, and expressions becomes crucial (Stewart, 2022). Misrepresentation and silencing of these voices are grave injustices. Therefore, the fashion-media industries can play a transformative role by genuinely reflecting these diverse narratives and values.

Furthermore, the insight gained from exploring Black fashion, such as the shopping habits and identity expression of Afro-American students, as highlighted in documentaries like "The New Black, A Documentary about Style and Identity" (Wand/YouTube, 2019), challenges the homogeneity of mainstream fashion. These students' rejection of fast fashion trends in favour of thrifting and creating their unique styles is not just a sustainable fashion statement but perhaps a cultural one.

In summary, the fashion and media sectors are at a crossroads, missing out on the rich potential of understanding diverse cultural consumer behaviour, fair representation, and equal opportunities. The industry's reliance on a monolithic cultural narrative, which places 'white' at the centre of everything, needs to be reevaluated. Embracing a more inclusive approach is morally imperative and a strategic business move in today's globalised world. (Stewart, 2022) Furthermore, as Maclaren (2015) suggests, the focus on the global economy of women is particularly significant. The ongoing research into globalisation and women's empowerment highlights how market dynamics can be leveraged to address the economic marginalisation of women, especially in developing nations.

Breaking The Glass Runway

The Council of Fashion Designers of America's 2021 report on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) in the fashion industry reveals a marked preference for white men in executive positions despite increased scrutiny on the industry's internal practices in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests. The report details that 63% of Black employees often find themselves as the sole Black individual in professional environments. Only 57% of Black employees believe their company's efforts towards racial and gender inclusivity are adequate, compared to 77% of white employees. This perception gap underscores a broader scepticism among Black employees about the lasting impact of current inclusivity measures (CFDA, 2021).

The report also shines a light on financial disparities, with 37% of Black employees needing additional income compared to 23% of white employees, suggesting that low-paid intern positions may be a barrier to advancing Black employees' careers. The fashion industry's resistance to change is likened to "Mad Men syndrome" (Elan, 2021), where a particular type of leadership is favoured, limiting who has access to opportunities and the capacity to effect substantial change within the industry.

The CFDA (2021) report with regards to hiring, a notable 22% of Black employees perceive the process as biased, often due to unconscious biases and the predominance of referral-based hiring that benefits white candidates. This has led to the underrepresentation of people of colour in higher roles, with Black employees feeling particularly marginalised, amplifying the pressure they face in predominantly white professional settings.

The British Fashion Institute and The MBS Group's June 2022 report echoes similar concerns, highlighting a significant discrepancy between the industry's leadership and the diverse communities it aims to serve. Despite 80% of fashion students at elite institutions being female, only 14% secure senior roles, pointing to a long-standing exclusivity within the industry. The fashion industry's influence on culture and society demands a prioritisation of diversity and inclusion to reflect its predominantly female customer and workforce base. However, only 29% of businesses possess comprehensive data on organisational diversity, with another 29% acknowledging their data is insufficient and 42% not collecting any diversity data (BFI and MBS Group, 2022).

In response to the global reckoning on racial injustice, the industry is called to treat diversity and inclusion as a critical aspect of business modernisation, with the urgency of initiatives such as digital transformation. 2020 served as a stark wake-up call, emphasising the urgency of addressing systemic imbalances and biases within the fashion industry at every level (BFI and MBS Group, 2022).

Fashion Photography

Regarding feminine representation and the photographer, only 13.7% of magazine covers from the top 10 American fashion publications, despite the fashion industry primarily catering to women (Bauck, 2018). This discrepancy illustrates a persistent gender imbalance within the industry (Cunningham, 2018). The continuous male dominance in these roles could lead to depictions that subordinate women, which could significantly shape our perceptions of reality (Bordo, 1997; Goffman, 1976). Therefore, an interdisciplinary approach to image analysis can provide comprehensive insights into image creation as a political activity.

Furthermore, Black photographers face significant hurdles to success and are expected to exceed their white peers by a vast margin to gain visibility. This disparity stems from a systemic scarcity of opportunities for Black creatives and familial concerns over the viability of such a career path. Despite social media's role in offering a platform for rising talents, there is a collective need within the industry to recruit more Black photographers to shift the long-standing status quo. (Dazed Digital, 2018)

The issue was spotlighted when U.S. Vogue showcased its September issue with Beyoncé on the cover, photographed by Tyler Mitchell, marking him as the first Black photographer to accomplish this in the magazine's 126-year history. Historically, Vogue, among other publications, has relied on a small, elite group of white male photographers, a practice that symbolises the broader industry's resistance to change and its hindrance to advancing new talent. Instances like the Pirelli calendar, which featured an all-black cast in an Alice in Wonderland theme but was shot by a white photographer, Tim Walker, illustrate the persistent overlooking of Black professionals for significant projects. This pattern reflects a more profound issue where moments meant to highlight Black beauty are captured through a lens that is often not Black (Dazed Digital, 2018).

On the other hand, social media has allowed emerging photographers to showcase their work, but the growth of Black professionals in established publications and significant fashion houses remains painfully slow. The industry's reluctance to assign pivotal roles to Black and upcoming photographers perpetuates a cycle of underrepresentation. McKenzie, a voice within the community, highlights the lack of mentorship and advocacy for Black photographers, emphasising their need to excel far beyond their peers to be noticed and overcome the isolation they often feel as the sole Black voice in professional settings (Dazed Digital, 2018).

Furthermore, the lack of a mainstream platform, such as Vogue Africa, is a significant barrier for African photographers aspiring to make a name in fashion, as noted by Naomi Campbell and Nigeria-based photographer Daniel Obasi. This absence hinders the visibility of emerging talents and contrasts with white photographers' recognition of their depiction of Afro-aesthetics (Dazed Digital, 2018). However, there is no shortage of skilled Black photographers—artists like Ruth Ossai and Nadine Ijewere are a testament to this. The challenge is not finding Black talent but providing them with the same opportunities a select group has monopolised for too long. Yet, despite the gradual change in fashion media, with consumers increasingly demanding representation, the predominant narrative still favours the white perspective. This underscores the need for an industry-wide cultural shift to truly embrace and celebrate diversity through inclusive representation behind the lens.

Film, TV, and Media

As Gill (2015) outlined, London's workforce of non-white individuals comprises over a quarter of the demographic, yet they comprise less than ten per cent of the media and cultural workforce. This stark underrepresentation has fuelled allegations of institutional racism in the sector. In positions of influence within media and culture, the participation of non-white groups is 15.1 per cent, and in the high-ranking roles of media companies in the FTSE 350 Index, only 6.7 per cent. There has yet to be a female Director-General at the BBC (Gill, 2015).

Moreover, akin to the fashion industry, women in the media and fashion industries are typically more educated than their male colleagues, with a higher percentage holding degrees and higher degrees. They are also more likely to have completed industry-specific training. Despite these qualifications and often working longer hours, women earn, on average, 15 per cent less than men and are less likely to be promoted or attain senior positions. (BFI and MBS Group 2022).

Concurrently, Gill (2015) observes a significant exodus of women from the media industry in their late thirties and forties, often linked to their decision to have children. Additionally, the industry operates on the adages "it is all down to who you know" and "you are only as good as your last job," which encapsulate the pressures of networking and the "compulsory sociality" described by Melissa Gregg (2011). This culture of networking creates an exclusionary environment, particularly for black and minority ethnic groups, perpetuating a "white monoculture.", which again holds similarities to black employees in the fashion industry (CFDA, 2021).

Nevertheless, despite the long history of legislation in Britain that promotes gender and racial equality, including the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, these laws fail to significantly impact employment practices in the media and other creative fields. Particularly, informal employment practices in these sectors circumvent formal equality protections, leading to what Jones and Thomson (2010) term "unmanageable inequalities" that are not only outside the scope of equality measures but also poorly documented, making them harder to challenge.

Therefore, the media and fashion industries are plagued by subtle forms of sexism and a postfeminist cultural narrative that falsely suggests all battles for equality have been won, rendering sexism an issue of the past. The difficulty of speaking out against discrimination, as noted by a black respondent in Thanki and Jefferys' study (2007), often results in being blacklisted or not believed, indicating a suppression of dialogue on inequality. This silence on inequality is partly due to the lack of critical language that acknowledges sexism and racism and a reluctance to recognise the persistence of these issues (Gill, 2015). However, the perception of the media and cultural industries as progressive and egalitarian paradoxically serves as a mechanism for perpetuating gender and other inequalities, challenging those who seek to understand and address these inequities in media work.

Women Remain Unseen Behind the Scenes

In the film industry, the representation of women in principal creative positions like screenwriters, directors, and camera operators is alarmingly low, yet there is a pronounced overrepresentation in costume and makeup departments (Gill, 2015). This gender imbalance is evident in film direction, an issue that garners attention annually during award season. For instance, Kathryn Bigelow's Academy Award for Best Director in 2010 was a significant event, standing out as one of only four women to have ever received an Oscar nomination for directing among approximately 400 nominees, and she remains the sole woman to have won the award (Gill, 2015).

Although there have been some advancements in recent years, the issue of diversity continues to be a significant concern within Hollywood and the broader U.S. entertainment industry. In 2022, women accounted for only 27% of movie writers, which has seen growth but remains modest. The gender disparity is further highlighted by the fact that the highest-earning film directors are exclusively male, emphasising a substantial economic divide between male and female professionals in the sector, as indicated by Statista in 2023. In 2021, women held a mere 25% of roles behind the scenes in Hollywood.

Regarding on-screen representation, males constituted about two-thirds, or 63%, of speaking roles in the top 100 grossing movies in the U.S. during 2022. Many of these characters, over 60%, were white. For streaming services' original films, over 62% of speaking female roles were portrayed by white actresses. Black actresses played approximately 21%, while Hispanic actresses represented a smaller fraction, at 6% (Statista in 2023).

Ethnic minority film writers in the U.S. in 2022 accounted for 12.4%, a rise from 7.6% in 2011. The rest were predominantly white. Similarly, in 2022, over 80% of U.S. movie directors and approximately 76% of motion picture and video industry employees were white, with Black or African American employees making up about 10% (Statista in 2023). Moreover, the proportion of lead actors in U.S. movies identified as people of colour declined in 2022 to just above 21%, down from an all-time high in 2020, yet still higher than the 10.5% in 2011 (Statista in 2023).

In contrast, the percentage of female directors fell to 14.6% in 2022 despite previously reaching record highs. The presence of women behind the scenes in Hollywood remains limited. In 2022, only 27% of movie writers were women, and no top-earning film directors were female. Women constituted only 25% of all behind-the-scenes roles in 2021. On-screen gender representation has improved, with women comprising about 39% of film leads in 2022, nearly double their share in 2011. Over the past decade, women and people of colour have seen considerable gains in on-screen roles (Statista in 2023).

However, a recent investigation has shown that initiatives to enhance diversity in Hollywood have primarily favoured white women, with women of colour seeing little to no benefit. According to the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, approximately 13% of directors of the top 100 films last year were women—a slight decrease from 15% in 2020 but a significant rise from 2.7% in 2007. Additionally, directors from historically marginalised groups saw their visibility in the industry increase to 27.3% in 2021. However, women of colour did not experience similar progress, as they have consistently accounted for less than 2% of directors of top-grossing films over the past 15 years. The USC research team has underscored this consistent underrepresentation, with initiatives like #OscarsSoWhite drawing attention to the issue and spurring action from studios. Katherine Pieper, a study co-author, pointed out that women of colour face substantial barriers within the industry (Sakoui, 2022). In 2021, only 5.4% of directors were women of colour, which is particularly disproportionate given that they represent about 20% of the U.S. population. Among this small group, Chloé Zhao emerged as a ground-breaking figure, being the first woman of colour and the first of Asian descent to win an Oscar for directing her film "Nomadland" (Sakoui, 2022).

Yet, despite these challenges, women of colour have been recognised for their excellence, with their work receiving the highest average and median Metacritic scores, surpassing those of their white and male counterparts (Sakoui, 2022). This achievement emphasises the disparity between the recognition of talent and the opportunities afforded to these women. Stacy Smith, another co-author, has observed that Hollywood's typical image of a female director is a white woman, while the term 'underrepresented' often refers to men from minority groups (Sakoui, 2022).


Hidden in Plain Sight

Since its establishment in 1981, the Journal of Macromarketing (JMK) has published 25 gender-related articles, constituting 4% of its total publications. This percentage, though minor, surpasses the 2% average found in journals rated 4*/4 and 3* by the Academic Journal Guide from the Chartered Association of Business Schools, as reported by McDonagh and Prothero in 2018.

Moreover, the Macromarketing Society, which scrutinises the complex interplay between markets, marketing, and society, has not yet seen a female Editor-in-Chief in its four-decade history, despite a nearly balanced gender distribution among its current Associate Editors and Editorial Review Board. This representation still exceeds the gender diversity seen in top-tier journals, where females account for 18.5% of Editors-in-Chief, 28% of Associate Editors, and 28.3% of Editorial Review Board members (Gurrieri et al., 2020). Throughout its history, the society has recognised individuals' contributions to the field with various awards, notably, all named after male contributors. Of the recipients of the prestigious Robert W. Nason Award, only one has been female among ten male awardees.

Furthermore, in celebrating its 25th anniversary, JMK issued a Special Issue reflecting its history and future research directions; this issue, comprising review articles and essays predominantly authored by men, omitted gender in its retrospection and foresight discussions. Even the doctoral reading list in Macromarketing, covering a range of themes where gender plays a critical role, did not feature gender as a distinct theme. Concurrently, female voices were scarce among the recommended readings and authors, highlighting a gender imbalance within the Macromarketing discipline and the broader academic landscape (Gurrieri et al., 2020).

This oversight extends beyond Macromarketing to other areas, such as the Consumer Culture Theory group, which has faced criticism for the underrepresentation of female authors and presenters. It is a glaring exclusion, especially when considering the relevancy of gender inequality and injustice across both developed and developing nations, as Steinfield and Holt (2020) illuminated in the same Special Issue. The reading list for the issue comprised 168 authors, 81% male and 19% female academics, further evidencing the disparity.

In conclusion, these findings culmination reveal that intersectional female representation remains starkly disproportionate within the fashion and media industries. And further emphasised in academia. Despite some progress, the evidence suggests that these industries are still marred by systemic barriers that perpetuate gender and racial disparities. As per the findings from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and the British Fashion Institute, black women are underrepresented in executive and creative roles within fashion, where power dynamics favour white men. Similarly, in the media sector, the participation of women, particularly black women, in influential positions is critically low, as Gill (2015) highlighted.

The underrepresentation is not due to a lack of qualifications, as women often possess higher degrees and industry-specific training than their male counterparts. However, they earn significantly less and seldom rise to senior positions (Gill, 2015; CFDA, 2021 BFI; and MBS Group, 2022). This imbalance underscores a nuanced form of sexism that is difficult to challenge, especially within the neoliberal, postfeminist climate that perpetuates the myth that "all the battles have been won." (Gill, 2015). Consequently, the dialogue around these inequalities becomes stifled, rendering the issue 'unspeakable', further entrenching the disparity.

Moreover, in terms of racial representation, the stark underrepresentation of black individuals in London's media workforce, as noted by Gill (2015), points to accusations of "institutional racism." This disparity extends to the systemic exclusion of black women from networks and contacts that could advance their careers, further contributing to a "white monoculture." Therefore, the absence of women in critical roles in fashion, media and academia affects not only the individuals but also the cultural output, limiting the diversity of voices and perspectives that shape the societal narrative, and as illustrated, is even more prevalent for black women.

Finally, as cultural producers, black women offer invaluable insights essential to the cultural tapestry's authenticity and richness. The continued marginalisation of black women in fashion and media does not only represent a failure in social equity but also a significant loss of cultural expression and understanding. It is imperative for the fashion and media industries to not only acknowledge these intersectional inequalities but also to actively work towards dismantling the structures that sustain them.


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