Cultural Studies Leuven

Interview with Dr. Bridget Conor

By Ilham Essalih

Dr. Bridget Conor is Senior Lecturer at King’s College London, in the Culture, Media and Creative Industries Department. She was recently at KU Leuven, and we were very happy to be able to interview her on this occasion.

I would like to thank you for being with us at KU Leuven today. I hope you are enjoying Belgium so far. I’d like to also thank you for accepting to do this interview. Before I get into more specific questions, could you tell us which issues you are working on at the moment?
You’re welcome, Belgium is wonderful!
In my department of Culture, Media and Creative Industries, there are a few of us who have been working on these issues around what we call Cultural Labour, or experiences of work in the cultural industries. My interest is mainly in working lives in film and television productions and screenwriting specifically. I’m also interested in why people choose to work in these professions, how they get into the industry, what their experiences are once they get in, and I guess, what we call precarious work, precarious lives. I’m also interested in what kinds of rewards people get from working in these industries, beyond simply money or fame. The other issue that I have become interested in is inequalities in the cultural industries, because to my mind, and some of my colleagues would agree, these industries should be egalitarian, and should be open to all, and that’s what creativity is, creativity is free, abundant and we all have it; but the industries are, if we look at them, often so unequal in terms of every type of inequality we might find. So I’m interested in these kinds of discrepancy between the dreams of what a creative life could be and what the reality is in terms of who actually gets to do that work.

In the introduction of Gender and Creative Labour you develop the problem of gender inequality in the Cultural and Creative Industries, and you also mention discrimination on grounds of race, disability, place etc. You mention that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities are under-represented in these industries, and that this problem is only getting worse. What about individuals who are at the intersection of these identities? By this I mean, for instance, women of colour or disabled women? Have you yourself worked on this subject? Do you think this is a relevant issue?
The short answer is: yes. I think intersectionality is really crucial if we talk about these issues. Because in a way, if we talk about inequality, intersectionality is still something relatively new in the field of Cultural Labour. I think we have to be really cautious about separating out one kind of inequality. Of course I think we need to, for practical reasons, but I think what’s difficult is; how do we develop methods that take into account intersectionality, because intersectionality of course is complex. For particular persons who try to get into these industries, you know there’s a huge complexity of identity that they bring onto the table, but I think the evidence we do have, although it is quite limited, that if you are a woman, and then you are also a woman of colour or you are also living with disability, it can be even more difficult for you to not only get into the industry, but then maintain and build a sustainable career. I think that’s really tricky, because those who might be making policy to change these things have to understand what intersectionality is as well. It’s something I have certainly thought about and my other colleagues have also done a lot of research that takes this into account, I think I just hope that more people will be interested in these issues and will do more of those intersectional studies.

When we discuss the problem of work discrimination against women, you often get the reaction that it is normal for companies not to hire women because of the risk of pregnancy and having to pay maternity leave, and that this is not misogyny, but rather the pragmatic need of a company to make profit and that, although regrettable, this is the rational reality. What do you respond to that as a woman, specifically in the context of the film industry?
Well, I think you’re absolutely right. If we as researchers talk to those who make policies and we kind of say, look, there are these problems and the statistics clearly show us that we’re nowhere near fifty-fifty equality when it comes to gender when it comes to directing film, or making art, and I think often the first response to that, is, exactly as you say, that it’s just “natural”, because yes, women, often at some point in their careers and their natural life cycle want children and we as companies and organisations have to be pragmatic and we have to take that into account and what becomes difficult, is that that’s absolutely true and fair on one level, but I think the problem is, women and motherhood very quickly become conflated. Women are often seen by a production company as potentially problematic because of the fact that they may one day possibly have children. So I think that this potentiality always becomes a certainty. The other thing that I find curious about this, is that it’s always women who are associated with childbirth and childrearing, whereas we could talk about it in terms of parenting, I mean men are also parents, and men who work in the cultural industry often have children but that’s never seen to be a problem for them, and of course, women have the biological capacity to bear children so we have to take that into account, but I still think that very quickly, this becomes a kind of natural reasoning and a natural problem. It is just often used as the one and only nice argument of why we don’t need to change this, and maybe change things could just be to have better childcare in organisations or in corporations, but again, we don’t really see that happening, at least not at the moment.

Do you think womanhood and motherhood should be two completely separate things?
It’s tricky, but potentially, yes, I think we need to try not to see these things as always inextricably linked, because otherwise we very quickly find ourselves in a kind of biological determinism. Maybe we need to try to overturn some of those assumptions. At least it would be fun to try.

You also mention gender segregation in the film industry, where you typically find women working in the hair, make-up and fashion departments, and men are predominantly present in sound and light engineering. Why do you think this segregation exists? Is it because men and women automatically put barriers to themselves? Do you think there is actual discrimination in accessing these jobs? Or is this simply a matter of comfort zone?
Oh, boy! Could it be all of the above?! I think it’s a very tricky combination of all of those things, I think, yes, the evidence shows that there is both horizontal and vertical segregation. I guess when I think about these issues, it’s very important to look at the history of these industries. When I looked back at the really early time when screenwriting as a profession kind of appeared in the early twentieth century, you actually initially had lots of women writing for film, as many as men. It was pretty close to fifty-fifty equality. But as these industries became more and more financialised, and therefore more business-orientated, they very quickly got new kinds of advertising and the kind of hype around new industries and they suddenly became really quite gendered in terminology and image, you quickly began to see that all the ads for camera’s and camera equipment were about the strength and power of those tools and technologies, which then were just assumed to be masculine traits, and women very quickly became associated with other kinds of jobs that are sex-typed ‘feminine’. So from very early on you get professionalisation and you get these stereotypes and myths of the profession, and then you start seeing women fall out of the industry and fall into those types of jobs that are considered feminine. History can be a helpful way to show us that it is not necessarily natural. Maybe we are brought up in certain ways, and then we assume that make-up and costume are things women are necessarily interested and good in. I suppose there’s individual and subjective dimensions of this, but I suppose we really need to think about those in the context of the history of these jobs and I guess when we start to shake things up, when we start seeing women directing films, then we really start seeing a change and we see that this gender segregation is not just common sense, it can be changed. We just need to try.

Do you think that a certain academic elite has the right to tell women that they shouldn’t restrict themselves to certain jobs and that they should aspire to ‘more’ when maybe they just feel comfortable doing what they do? Are certain women entitled to think that they know better than others because they are more educated?
It is just really, really hard, and you’re right, there is this image that academics and researchers are locked away in their ivory tower and they are disconnected from real people’s lives, and I can really see why. But the reaction that “you don’t know me, or my life or my choices”, is legitimate, who are we to pronounce that? I’m still learning myself and I think that in an ideal world I would like to do the kind of research that is qualitative and really takes into account people’s lived experience. Academics shouldn’t just theorise ‘over there’ and there’s probably more work to do in figuring out how we can try to do more collaborative research that works with people in communities and that address issues that are important to them. We can only try and aspire to this.

Thank you so much for this interview!
You’re welcome, thank you.