Art and Gender Bias

                                                                                                                                                                                                  illustration by Ellissa Schatz

 

As you climb the rungs of SCAD studio classes, you may notice the ratio of girls to guys gets increasingly left of center. I remember my drawing 2 class freshman year having just as many males as there were females, but now, as I’m taking my senior illustration and printmaking classes, there is only one male student in each of my classes, one of which has 20 students in it. Speaking with the professors of my studios, they have also noted that over the years, the amount of women who advance through the programs has begun to far exceed the amount of men. I did a little digging and found that at SCAD, the gender ratio currently is 66% female and only 34% male. Comparing 6 of the top art schools in the US (SCAD, SVA, RISD, CalArts, MICA, and The New School), the ratio of female to male art students across disciplines is 68% to 32%. At first glance, this may seem like a leap for creative feminists. However, in our classes, when learning about different illustrators or designers or fine artists, how many of those names are female? Even when talking about recently successful artists, a vast majority of the names we hear and study and draw inspiration from are men. How could this be, when 66% of art students are women? What happens between graduation and success in the professional art world? Why is it that the field does not represent the classroom?

 

One of the oldest and most publically known example of the gender disparity in the art world is in the high art museums. Almost every single great masterpiece and influential artwork that is taught in art history classes was created by a man. This has been noticed and reacted upon creatively for the past 31 years by The Guerrilla Girls. If you’re not familiar with The Guerrilla Girls, they are an anonymous rotating group of women who describe themselves as “feminist activist artists… who use facts, humor, and outrageous visuals to expose gender and ethnic bias as well as corruption in politics, art, film, and pop culture.”

                                                                                                                                                                               image credit: moorewomenartists.org

In 1989, 5 years after the group’s founding, The Guerrilla Girls published maybe their most famous posters protesting gender disparities in fine art. The poster reads “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” and explains that “less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.”  In their description of this poster, the Tate Museum in London recognizes that women artists played an integral role in the development of and experimentation with art in the 1970s and 80s, however, during that time, the amount of women artists being represented in galleries continued to decline. In fact, the instances when an acceptable number of female artists get representation in many major galleries and museums, is when there is an exhibition solely dedicated to “the best women artists” Georgia O’Keefe, in the height of her career refused to show her work in an extremely well received show, “Women Artists: 1550-1950”, saying that she was not the best female painter of her day, but the best painter, period. There need be no distinction.

 

Not only is there a huge bias in major art museums all over the world, but that also extends into the ever-growing field of commercial art; design, fashion, advertising, illustration, etc. In a 2009 survey created by and for Web Designers, it was found that 82.6% of web designers are male. Chillingly, of the same group of participants, 66.5% shared that they think that there is “definitely not” a gender bias in the design world. Web design is only one part of the professional art industry, but these alarming numbers correlate to many other communication and design arts as well. Why could this be? As with any worldwide trend, there are countless things that cause women to not be as prevalent in the arts, but there are a few things that are largely at work that are definitely worth consideration.

There are so many fewer female designers than male designers working in the industry, and even fewer from those are considered superstars. This means that there are little to no women in the field for other women and girls aspiring to be designers to look up to. There are countless male role models, but it is an age old trend that it is significantly harder and more discouraging to go for something when you don’t have a number of identifiable role models.

                                                                                                                                                                                 illustration by Ellissa Schatz

Gender roles and perceptions are another tale as old as time in influencing how people grow up. Have you ever asked a group of children if they want to be president when they grow up? An astronaut? A scientist? Multiple studies have been conducted in which a group of kindergarten-aged children are asked who of them are going to be president when they grow up. Most of the kids raise their hands excitedly, boys and girls alike. Moving up in age, 6th graders are asked the same thing. Fewer kids raise their hands, and they’re all boys. Maybe one brave girl. By this time, children are conditioned to believe that high pressure jobs are for men. This goes the same for nearly all careers. Men are automatically assumed to be better at holding their own and paving their own way, something that is most definitely necessary in a world where freelancing and building your own self up is what makes you successful. This conditioning can be harmful especially when no one is aware that it is even occurring. When you graduate school and are suddenly thrown into awareness that the field you’re going into is male-dominated, it presents a daunting uphill battle right away.

When females go into art and design, they are expected to create designs that are “girly” and “cute”. When they do, it’s often seen as silly and unimportant, but when they create outside of these gender norms, people are impressed that a woman can create something that appeals to a wider audience.

These are all small pieces in a big inequality puzzle, but they’re all worth noting and trying to change them around.

 

Though there is a huge lack of female industry superstars, more and more women are freelancing, to take their careers and passions into their own hands and make a name for themselves, while also having the freedom to do whatever they want to do with their personal and home lives. As we know, there is an enormous amount of pressure for women to not only be strong career women in 2016, but also for them to be masters of the home and family. Freelancing gives them the freedom to do both, while also undermining the wage gap by building up their own names and value. This boom in freelancing isn’t a cure for sexism, but it at least gives women a chance to pave their own way.