Mind the gap

An exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery started me thinking about why women are so under-represented in the arts, and why it should matter to men as well as women.

Hardly a week goes by when the issue of gender equality isn’t in the news, whether it’s Jennifer Lawrence blowing the lid on the gender pay gap in Hollywood or something more troubling. An exhibition opened at the Saatchi Gallery last week featuring the work of 14 female artists. An attempt, perhaps, to address the fact that, whilst about 50% of art students are women, 70% of work exhibited in galleries is by men.

The art world is not alone in this under-representation of women: think of a well-known artist, photographer, fashion designer, chef, film director or hairdresser and, chances are, they’ll be male. Micol Hebron, an artist who started Gallery Tally to monitor the representation of artists, says “There is still a real problem with who’s getting opportunities, who’s getting shown, who’s getting collected, who’s getting promoted, and who’s getting written about.”

When I took up photography less than three years ago, I was taken aback at how male-dominated the field was: publications with hardly a female contributor, all-male line ups at conferences, competition winners without a woman’s name on the list, and only one woman (part of a couple at that) amongst Canon’s 11 Ambassadors. It was disheartening.

So why are women so under-represented? It’s certainly not due to lack of talent. Nor do I think there’s a conscious male conspiracy to exclude women (although it sometimes feels that way). I raised the lack of female representation in ‘Outdoor Photography magazine’ with a member of staff. The response was that the magazine isn’t aware usually of the photographer’s name when selecting images, it’s simply that the publication doesn’t receive many images from women. Why is this? Is it because women aren’t as willing or as confident at promoting themselves as men, particularly in what is still a male-dominated field? Behavioural studies would certainly backup this assertion, showing that men are more likely to overestimate their skills and abilities, whilst women are more likely to underestimate them. Is it any surprise when women are operating in an environment that gives them no reason to feel self-assured and when ‘confidence’ is often seen as ‘bossy’ or ‘aggressive’?

So what’s the answer? Linda Nochlin, an American art historian, urges women to “be fearless, speak up, work together, and consistently make trouble. It is imperative that women become speaking subjects, rather than silent objects.”  The good news is that things are starting to change: photography groups such as ‘Landscapes by Women’ are championing the female cause, photography-holiday specialists Light & Land now has several female photographers running workshops, and online magazine ‘On Landscape’ regularly features female contributors.

Perhaps the most important question to ask is not why is there an issue, but why should we strive for more equal representation? It’s simple – because it benefits everyone. As Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones wrote in his review of the exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery, “The real reason women need to be represented properly in the art world is so the world can be fully represented in art”.

Find out more:
Taking the measure of sexism: facts, figures and fixes: http://www.artnews.com/2015/05/26/taking-the-measure-of-sexism-facts-figures-and-fixes/

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