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The fallacy of working your way out of structural adversity


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Gemma Germains, a design entrepreneur, writes for It’s Nice That about how privilege gives so many of us in the creative field a leg up in our careers. Germains, the founder of Well Made Studio, admits that she was given the freedom to work without compensating herself to save her troubled studio because her father-in-law bought her a house and she didn’t have to worry about rent or mortgage payments.

While Germains’ general message is on point, which is that we should be open about our privilege as a way of acknowledging and making room for the less privileged and marginalized within the creative community, she says one thing that makes me cringe: “If someone like me can overcome industry privilege, even with a couple of kids in tow, then so can anyone if they work hard enough.”

The idea that everyone can work their way out of racist and misogynist structures is echoed so often that I have to regularly remind myself that it’s bullshit. It coincidentally goes against Germains’ message of inclusivity, and places the onus on the individual, rather than the system, to work her way out of structural inequity to become exceptional through (usually underpaid) labor. This sentiment is an identification with and even affirmation of the system–the absurd fantasy that anyone in any circumstance should have the time, emotional reserve, and physical ability to overcome structural adversity, and that such hard work in every circumstance would be recognized and rewarded. Further, the idea that anyone can and should overcome such adversity suggests that failing to overcome is a failure of the individual, rather than the failure of a system with odds stacked against women and poc.

To be fair, I think Germains was trying to set up this statement as a common perception about her that is both true and false as a privileged white mother: that while she does experience some adversity as a woman in a creative field, she is also immensely privileged by both her skin color and her family’s wealth.

What are your thoughts on “the resourceful marginalized”? Does Germains come off as out of touch?

Ostensibly, because there are legions of talented yet unpaid interns, career break parents (predominantly mothers), people with disabilities and people of colour who aren’t being welcomed into the industry, irrespective of talent, hardware or gumption. Our industry is as white as Warburtons, able bodied and ever-decreasingly female the further up we climb.

In operation is an industry privilege that shames those of us with the voice, finances and ability to transform the status quo. Shameful that, despite having the opportunity to own our privilege, we choose instead to trot out the same weary lines about hard work, good luck and best behaviour.

I’m one of roughly 11% women holding an owner/director level position in the industry. I’m a great one to wheel out for talks. I’ve worked on well known projects and tackled considerable challenges. If someone like me can overcome industry privilege, even with a couple of kids in tow, then so can anyone if they work hard enough.

People listen to me. It’s absolutely vital I tell the truth.

I tell one particular story about how, through sheer grit and determination myself and my business partners rescued our collapsing business. Technically it’s the truth; I spent many months back in 2014 working without pay to put the studio back on track. All good and true, however, the only reason I was able to put so much unpaid effort into saving the studio was because 5 years previous, my father-in-law bought me a house.

I’ve had a long career in the creative industries, done work I’m proud of without ever having to miss a sports day. But let’s be honest, I get a whopping leg up every month. No matter how much I think the big boys have it better, I’ll never have to worry about missing a mortgage payment.

*Image via Dreamstime