Monday, July 13News For London

“Women have to work harder and longer to get recognised”: Are the arts a man’s world?

Last night’s 89th Academy Awards made headlines for several reasons. Issues ranged from the use of the wrong photo during the memorial video and the already infamous mix-up when announcing Best Picture clouded proceedings. However one key source of controversy has followed the awards since nominees were announced: 80 per cent of nominees outside of the acting categories are male.

Are women marginalised in the arts community? [Photo credit: Samuel Zeller, via CC0]
Criticised last year for a lack of racial diversity, #OscarsSoWhite dominated coverage of the proceedings. It seems that although this year’s ceremony is more representative in some ways, the nominations still come up short in others. This has prompted us to question how much gender inequality women face within the arts.

Male-dominated industries

Fresh from being awarded a Breakthrough Brit award by BAFTA, composer Nainita Desai spoke to us about her experiences in what she refers to as a “male dominated field”. “I have had very few female role models,” Nainita told us, “and therefore one feels isolated”. An absence of visible female contemporaries has meant that Nainita perhaps did not have the same possibilities for mentorship or influences as her male counterparts.

“One feels isolated”: composer Nainita Desai describes the feeling of having a limited range of female role models [Photo credit: Nainita Desai]
Performance poet Megan Beech echoes Nainita’s sentiments about operating in a male-dominated sphere. “When I started I was 17 years old and often going into quite intimidating older male spaces.” The award-winning poet, who has featured on the BBC iPlayer series “Women Who Spit”, uses poetry to explore her views on feminism and the issues that women face.

The 2011 SLAMbassador’s champion recognises that she has still had to operate in male-dominated spheres. “Even in a pretty liberal community like the world of poetry I have felt uncomfortable about latent (and blatant) sexism.

Art’s gender imbalance

Earlier this month, a Guardian report revealed that female artists account for only 35 per cent of the Tate Modern’s collections. Even less at the National Gallery of Scotland, where the collection is made up only 4 per cent by female artists, whilst at the Whitworth Manchester, only 20 per cent of the collection is work by female artists. The statistics, which explored major galleries in the UK and abroad, highlight the huge gap in the representation of male and female artists. Similarly, feminist collective Guerilla Girls continue their commitment to highlight the lack of diversity in the art world, most recently with an exhibit at east London’s Whitechapel Gallery.

Image: Bri Wink

Speaking to Ukrainian contemporary artist Zoia Skoropadenko, we asked whether she witnesses this gender imbalance, looking at the above statistics. However, Zoia feels that “today the opportunities are equal”. The artist, who spoke to us from her current base in California, simply stated that “Of course nothing ever perfect so you as a woman-artist can be treated as a queen today and tomorrow no one will exhibit you”. Whether she views this as unique to women is unclear, but we could take, from her response, a sense of realism that reflects the way in which the imbalance has been taken as given.

Sexism in the arts

Danyah Miller, a multi-award winning storyteller whose current show “Perfectly Imperfect” explores the lives of five generations of women, feels that women face more challenges than men. “I’m not convinced it’s a level playing field”, Danyah told us, “and women have to work harder and longer to get recognised.” Having worked in the Royal Drury Theatre after leaving university, Danyah experienced firsthand this uneven playing field when she applied for a managerial role at a time when the theatre had no female managers. She recounts how the General Manager said to her “if it doesn’t work out with you we won’t be employing any other female managers”. This presupposed negativity has followed Danyah throughout many of her career endeavours.

Nainita Desai reinforces this view using her experiences as a composer. “I have experienced racism and sexism (being British Asian)” Nainita told us. She recounts several comments that have been levelled at her throughout her career – “some people make gender based commentary such as “you can’t score a war film because you’re a delicate, emotional female.”

Iranian film maker Tina Gharavi spoke to Charlotte Gannon about her experiences within the film industry and her views about women being marginalised.

Positive changes

Despite this, Nainita feels positive about changes being made in her own industry. Nainita refers to several schemes run by major organisations to champion diversity within composing. “Major organisations and charities such as Breakthrough Brits, WFTV and the BFI all have numerous schemes where they target and encourage people from all walks of life.” Having been awarded a Breakthrough Brit in 2016, Nainita has reason to take a more hopeful view for the future of female composers. She credits the quotas imposed on these schemes as ensuring that “the talent reflects the diversity of the population from all classes and backgrounds.”

There is a similar optimism in the art world. In a bid to combat the gender imbalance in the art world, online marketplace ArtFinder has launched a pledge based on their own findings. Ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8th, they’re launching a campaign to raise awareness about gender inequality in the art world. Their campaign promises to make their own seller data, stock and sales public to enable further exposure on the issue. Their findings revealed that of the top 100 lots sold at auction last year, only one was by a woman. They claim that 52 per cent of the artists featured on their website are women, and they sell nearly 40 per cent more art than their male artists.

Katy Pugsley, Dance Captain of the hit West End musical Mamma Mia!, gives a similarly positive view of her industry. We spoke to her about the inclusive nature of theatre.

Sue Jelley, the President for the Society of Women Artists, recommends that we “look at ourselves in a more circumspect way and ask serious questions how to have more women curating museums, more women highlighted as a matter of course for their talent”.  According to Sue, addressing the factors that are holding women back in the arts is crucial to rectifying the situation.

It already seems that many organisations are asking these questions. With the likes of BAFTA and Artfinder shining a light on inequality in their respective industries, there is a growing awareness about the gender imbalance in the arts.With International Women’s Day approaching on March 8th, women’s roles across all sectors are facing increasing scrutiny. Megan Beech credits her own art as “a very powerful medium for sharing ideas and crystallizing lots of complex thoughts about things like sexism in a very short moment”, a view shared by everyone featured in this article irrespective of their chosen medium. The arts are not the only sector in which there is great progress to be made, although they provide women with unique mediums through which they can express themselves.


Infographic stats courtesy of: NMWA,  Impakter, The Guardian and Variety