Arts Workers of Color Riddled by Student Loan Debt, Survey Finds


It’s no secret that women and non-men, especially those of color, have historically been subjected to structural pay inequities. As recently as 2022, the Pew Research Center reported that while White women earned 83 cents for every dollar made by their male counterparts, Black women only earned 70 cents and Latinx women earned 65 cents. The National Women’s Law Center also reported in 2021 that the reality for Indigenous women was even more abysmal, as they typically earned only 60 cents for every dollar paid to White men.

Now, new data from a survey of 1,234 arts workers conducted by the nonprofit ArtTable further outlines how enduring systemic inequalities inhibit equitable compensation for women and nonbinary people of color working in the United States culture sector. While the vast majority of participants (approximately 81%) self-identified as White, the results still clearly detail the implicit barriers that disproportionately affect people of color in the artistic labor market, exacerbating inaccessibility and underrepresentation. 

The newly published results represent the second batch of findings from ArtTable examining gender inequality in the arts labor market, building on a report released in November.

Unsettled student loan debt, low pay, a lack of accountability for discriminatory mistreatment, and discrepancies in negotiation norms more heavily affected non-White survey respondents in comparison to their White counterparts. For instance, only 23% of the individuals who self-identified as White reported having current student loan debt. On the other hand, although roughly 16.7% of respondents self-identified as non-White, 39.6% reported outstanding student loan debt.

Additionally, while the poll did not record any notable disparities in terms of employment status, qualitative answers gathered from participants revealed widespread discrimination against arts and cultural workers of color. In a section of the survey where respondents were asked to reflect on their best and worst jobs, people of color described workplaces fraught with racism, sexism, sexual harassment, and toxic practices.

“What came up a lot when people were talking about their worst jobs were experiences of racism and feeling unsupported by management when they would bring these things up,” sociologist Gillian Gualtieri, who led the survey, told Hyperallergic.

One unnamed Black respondent described “rampant racism, disgusting pay ($10/hour for a management position), and unsafe working conditions in the name of quirky art,” while another Black woman participant characterized her worst job as a “racist, sexist cesspool” where her manager would regularly “help himself to half of [her] commission” whenever she asked for assistance or additional training.

“We saw similar stories come out, especially in the negotiation component of the report,” Gualtieri said, pointing to the last section of the survey, which examines negotiation practices. One Black woman respondent said that she learned how to negotiate her pay by talking to her fellow Black and women colleagues. 

“Because employers expect White men to negotiate professionally and treat them in ways that are unique to them, they tend not to offer advice I can use successfully,” the unnamed participant said.

Gualtieri explained that negotiation practices are intentionally ambiguous, resulting in more obstacles for non-men workers of color vis-à-vis their White male colleagues because negotiation strategies don’t apply universally.

“What might be praised for a male colleague because he’s ambitious is criticized for a woman of color colleague because she’s overstepping,” Gualtieri said.  

The release of these survey results is only a beginning step in identifying and addressing the embedded structural inequities, Gualtieri said, adding that ArtTable’s virtual workshop series on this data aims to gather additional information and feedback to begin addressing these enduring issues. The nonprofit plans to publish this data later as an addendum to the final report.



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