Let’s Talk About the Gender Gap in Art and Photography

Backed by studies, experts from the art and photography fields reinforce the long-standing belief that men enjoy better opportunities than their female counterparts who do the same work.

It’s been a well-established fact that the gender gap stubbornly persists. This, despite women and their supporters standing up and fighting for equal rights for decades – now more than ever, even. If you’re scratching your head at this, mouth poised to argue otherwise or at the very least temper this generalization until it becomes something more palatable, well, congratulations. You’re most likely in a position privileged enough that you’ve been spared from seeing or experiencing this within your sphere of existence.

But just because you aren’t seeing it doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

Whether we’re talking about pay, exposure, leadership positions, or assignments, this imbalance continues. It’s prevalent even in the photography industry, where the gap is pretty glaring.

Don’t take my word for it. Well-versed experts in the field have conducted studies that prove it.

Sexism in the Art World

But first, let’s zoom out a bit to see how things are in the art world in general. Just last month, NPR’s social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam, and finance professor at Oxford, Renee Adams, appeared briefly on the NPR podcast Morning Edition to talk about why there are fewer well-known female artists than male artists.

Vedantam presented a few possible reasons. She explained at length that this could be that women “[are not] as good painters,” or that the bias lies within the art buyers themselves.

She said Adams and her colleagues checked whether or not volunteers could tell the gender of the artist by just looking at paintings since, “presumably, if there’s a difference in the quality of paintings based on men and women painting them, you should be able to pick out the men from the women by being able to pick out the good paintings from the bad ones.” But they weren’t.

““Sexism reaches into the grave. If you’re a dead female artist, you’re still playing catch-up with the guys,” Vedantam said.”

So is it because men are simply better connected and thus get more shows and exposure, they ask. Even after analyzing millions of art transactions at auctions, the researchers found that it’s not really about connections especially since, in most cases, the marketing skills of artists who may or may not be dead now are no longer involved.

For her part, Adams presented a sobering fact: a painting by a woman will sell much less than a painting by a man; at a discount of 42.1%, to be precise.

Sadly, it does seem that patrons’ perceptions play a huge role in the persistence of the gap. Adams and her colleagues found that affluent people who visit art galleries, “especially men,” are said to rate art as “less compelling” if they’re told it was created by a woman.

“Sexism reaches into the grave. If you’re a dead female artist, you’re still playing catch-up with the guys,” Vedantam said.

Lack of Diversity in the Photography Industry

Photography, too, remains a man’s world. In 2015, a study conducted by World Press Photo, the University of Stirling, and Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Photojournalism found that gender inequality in photojournalism is real. The proponents of the study did a survey among 1,556 photographers from over 100 countries. Only 236 of the participants were women.

Here are some of the more interesting findings as presented in the Time article:

  • Only 7% of the female respondents work for large media companies – less than half the number of their male counterparts which sits at 22%.
  • Women who did work for media companies “were assigned work less often than their male counterparts and they were more likely to work part-time and not have another job.”
  • 42% of women earn less than $9,999.
  • 5% of men earn $80,000 or more vs. only 1.5% of women.

These numbers reinforce the long-standing notion that male photographers receive better deals overall, including but not limited to; assignments, wages, positions, and exposure. And it’s not even that women don’t make the effort. As the same study found, they do, and in fact, they do so more than their male peers. More of them are university educated, more engaged in social media, more versatile in terms of technology used, and more digitally savvy.

Which is why it can get irritating and exhausting every time news like a prominent camera brand announcing not one, not two, but 32 brand ambassadors, with literally all of them being male photographers comes out.

All this may sound pessimistic but we’d still like to hold on to the hope that things will turn around in the not-too-distant future. As we speak, more and more women continue to make their mark in the field. Just recently, we spoke with music photographer Beth Saravo, who said that things “are shifting” and expressed optimism about women breaking the proverbial glass ceiling, slowly but surely.

And let’s not forget: per The New York Times, top photo editors of leading publications including National Geographic, Time, and The New York Times (just to name a few) are females, with many female photographers working to find great and meaningful stories under their wing.

The journey towards gender equality in our industry is a long and arduous one, but we’d like to think we are getting there sooner than we know. Women’s voices are getting louder by the day – it’s time we all take heed.

Via NPR, Time, The New York Times. Image of Migrant Mother by renowned female photographer Dorothea Lange sourced from the Library of Congress’ Prints & Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC).