Alexander Adams: Women in Art Today

Alexander Adams

We are told that in many fields women face systematic disadvantage and are under-represented. It has become a core belief of many and goes almost unchallenged. When politicians came under pressure regarding supposed gender discrimination in the workplace, the British government conducted a survey of arts organisations. The 2018 report found that women comprise 56% of the British arts-sector workforce. The Arts Council of England has a National Council comprising 53% women and an overall workforce of 65% women. This evidence seems to contradict the narrative that British organisations reflect male power. At the very least, female administrators and human-resources staff must be implementing a form of patriarchy which is proving strangely ineffective. 

I wondered why the female-disempowerment story had such currency when reality appeared to contradict that. So, starting in July 2018 for 12 months, I collected data on the press releases that I encountered as a critic in the forms of emails, publisher catalogues, magazine advertisements and notices on specialist websites regarding the international art world. I neither screened nor sought out data. I wanted to test the narrative that women in the arts face obstacles that their male colleagues do not – in other words, women are subject to widespread sexism due to the actions of individuals, organisations and systems. I daily checked every public statement relating to living individuals of ascertainable gender, classing each entry under appointment, prize/award or event. I tallied data monthly and derived from it percentages. I discounted any announcements relating to dead artists, non-fine-art events, events without an identifiable artist and previously announced events. Announcements relate to events in Europe, North America, Australia and a few from other regions. 

The event data are numbers of opportunities not individuals because it was impossible to count individuals in events such as art fairs. Thus an event of 2 male artists is listed as “1 male opportunity”; an exhibition of 8 men and 3 women is listed as “1 mixed opportunity”. Each entry of unknown gender or mixed gender is counted as 0.5 male and 0.5 female opportunities.

Although the system was neither comprehensive nor watertight, it produced remarkably clear consistent data.

1.  Women outnumber men in recent appointments.

Data shows that, in the cases documented, women are appointed to a greater number of permanent positions than men in public and private venues, arts organisation and to more temporary positions as organisers, directors and curators of events. This strongly suggests that there is no bias against women in hiring and promotion of individuals for permanent and temporary positions. It is fair to conclude there is no systematic bias against women being appointed to jobs within the fine arts. If, as it seems, a) women are entering existing positions at a greater rate than men and b) they are entering at a greater rate than that of the increase of positions in the field overall, then the field is becoming increasingly female populated.  

2.  Female artists outperform male artists in recent fine-art prizes and awards.

Considering the multiple estimates of the population of artists dividing 40-45% female and 55-60% male, female artists win more prizes than men proportionate to the percentage of the artist population that they comprise. All other things being equal, a female artist is two to three times more likely than a male artist to receive an award or prize. It is fair to conclude there is no systematic bias against female artists receiving prizes and awards.

3.  There is over-performance of women artists in recent fine-art prizes and awards.

Working on the basis that women form 40-45% of all professional active fine artists, we can see a measurable consistent over-performance by female artists. Different women were receiving prizes, awards, honours, scholarships and so forth, so it was not a case of a few skilled individuals winning multiple prizes due to personal merit and thereby distorting data. Male artists are under-represented in terms of fine-art prizes and awards. It is fair to conclude that female artists statistically over-perform and male artists under-perform in the area of receiving prizes and awards. 

4. Female artists are represented in recent arts events at a level commensurate with that which they form in the artist population.

Working on the basis that women form 40-45% of all professional and active fine artists, we can see that they have opportunities commensurate with their proportion of the artist population. The figure is remarkably consistent month-on-month. It is the largest dataset in the survey and the most consistent in terms of percentages. It is fair to conclude there is no systematic bias against women artists participating in fine-art events.

5.  Recent female-only events outnumber male-only events.

The total number of specifically male-only events was very small compared to specifically female-only events. For whatever reasons, fewer events around single-gender bases were devoted to male artists than female ones. It is fair to conclude that specifically single-gender events significantly favour female artists by providing more opportunities for female artists than for male artists. 

6.  The dataset is of adequate size.

The larger is the dataset the greater the consistency. Appointments and Prizes/Awards – the groups with the least amount of data – fluctuated most; Events had most entries and was most consistent. Inevitably, a study with a larger dataset would be more accurate.

7.  The data is internally consistent.

Data did not fluctuate dramatically over period and did not seem to be seasonally affected. Even in months with relatively little data, percentages for these months remained consistent with high-data months. This suggests that the data is relatively reliable and consistent. It also suggests that as trends were stable that the data shows a persistent state rather than a temporary situation.

8.  The data seems a reasonable reflection of reality. 

There is no indication – factually, logically or anecdotally – that this data is not a workable approximation of reality. The data reflects the experiences of most artists, art critics, art collectors and other art professionals rather than any political narrative.    

9. These conclusions are in need of future correlation and correction. Further statistical models and datasets are needed to confirm or disprove the conclusions above. 

Overall, these figures – while being a limited dataset – are an indication of what is likely the true state of affairs. To my knowledge, this is the first time such data has been compiled and for that reason alone it is of value. A more comprehensive survey is needed. However, there is nothing in this data or the conclusions that seems not broadly representative of the current situation.