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Despite the predominantly female visual arts workforce of the past decade, it’s striking that men continue to be given the top jobs. Evidence of cultural diversity is still hard to find.

Praise then to the Baltic gallery trustees, who have broken a continuous line of male directors with the appointment of Sarah Munro. My own examination of the state of play at the best-funded galleries in the English arts funding portfolio (painstakingly poring over websites and funding spreadsheets) reveals that women at the top are still relatively rare.

The Cultural Value and Inequality report by Kate Oakley and Dave O’Brien, discussing inequality within both the creation and consumption of cultural value, indicates that women make up nearly 70% of the workforce in museums and galleries. But according to my research, within those top galleries getting £1m+ of Arts Council England funding, just 37% of director or CEO roles are held by women. The situation is only a little better in the other UK nations, with women leading in 40% of Scotland’s best-funded galleries and 50% of those in Wales.

I’m also shocked to find that after years of cultural diversity policies and all those Smart business plans required of England’s funded galleries – forcing them to be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based, the majority of their leaders are white and male.

According to the recent Warwick Commission report, representation of women and ethnic minorities in the cultural workforce – not to mention people with disabilities – has worsened over the past five years. From his perspective as a cultural analyst and consultant, Mark Robinson argues on his Thinking Practice blog that diversifying the workforce is one of the most urgent challenges facing the cultural sector: “Even us white men of a certain age are getting tired of listening to white men of a certain age and their views.”

The paucity of “alternative” role models is apparent the deeper you delve. According to my calculations, in England alone, men chair 86% of trustee boards in those “top” galleries. With under 2% of chairs categorised as coming from black or minority ethnic backgrounds, Castlefield Gallery director Kwong Lee’s comments in 2012 on diversity still hold true: “A lot of ethnic minorities still don’t know it’s an option for them to … be a leader within the cultural industries.”

As discussed at a Clore Leadership Programme (CLP) development day: leadership should be an activity, attitude and way of being, rather than a job or title. It’s a notion that calls for the traditional career and leadership structures to be superseded by new roles that are premised on flexible locations and independent working so that they appeal more to those who currently are or feel excluded from the leadership pool.

So what about more artists at the top? Surely the arts need artists to help solve the many challenges they face? Their leadership derives from a flexible and independent approach. They thrive on uncertainty and risk and have what Thomas Homer Dixon calls a prospective mind: “One that aggressively engages with uncertainty and risk, which recognises how little we understand and how we control even less.”

In an interview published by a-n The Artists Information Company, Cornelia Parker, whose work is often about flipping things on their head, joked that she’s more a “redael” – a backwards leader. In the piece she suggested a kind of leadership that is both on the one hand visionary, inspiring, influential and innovative – and at the same time questioning, interrogative, plural and doubting.

While programmes such as CLP are actively pursuing policies to ensure diversity within leadership positions, by drawing from a wider pool to identify and train the next swell of cultural leaders, I’m making a plea here for some positive discrimination for the UK’s independent practitioners and working artists so that the “alternative” leadership talents can flourish.

I looked back to the things that worked for me, and offer some suggestions for how to get some quick wins on the equality and diversity front.

Bring back arts peer panels: Although dismissed by Arts Council England (ACE) on the grounds of cost and the length of time needed for decision-making, peer panels provided a space for the insight of artists (as I was then). It was through ACE and Northern Arts specialist panels that I, with more illustrious artists as my role models, learned how to contribute usefully to such discussions and to make and stand by those difficult arts funding decisions.

Include artists on boards: It wasn’t that long ago that the McMaster’s review recommended that excellence in the arts meant having at least two artists or practitioners on the board of every publicly-funded organisation. It also recommended establishing a knowledge bank of artists and practitioners who could be called on when recruiting for senior arts posts. Do this.

Let artists speak for themselves: Only last week I heard of yet another arts conference at which what artists should do (in this case to support arts fundraising and philanthropy) was the topic, but none of the speakers to the proposition were actually artists.

Don’t just call on the usual suspects: Draw your artists and arts freelancers from all social, cultural and economic backgrounds.

Invest to create the assets of the future: Ring-fence a budget for freelancers’ fees because artists and many arts professionals now are self-employed. If you want to secure cultural, social and economic equality across all aspects of the arts, pay loss of earnings and out-of-pocket expenses (as well as disability access costs) for freelance speakers, consultees and artistic advisers. You’ll be helping to grow tomorrow’s great cultural leaders through your interventions.

First published by The Guardian 24 September 2015