Thursday, August 11, 2016

Gender imbalance: Are women artists under-represented in art?

This is a round-up of and commentary on surveys about women artists and gender imbalance in art around the world.

Regular readers will know that I've regularly commented on this blog about the representation of women in artists selected for art competitions, exhibitions in galleries and on the committees running art societies and museums etc. Indeed I have been known to comment also on the "get on and do" approach of a number of societies run by women!

Part of a very effective graphic for the admirable "Countess Report "
- published on a regular basis in Australia. The latest (2016) report draws on 2014 data.
This post started from one recently published survey report in the UK - and then grew and became international!

Representation of Women Artists in the UK

Earlier this year a research report on the Representation of Women Artists in the UK was published. I've summarised its conclusions below.
  • The report was commissioned by the Freelands Foundation and the author of the report was Charlotte Bonham-Carter
  • The report addresses the question "Are female artists under-represented in Britain?"  and seems to have started from the presumption that they are not.
often people think that equality has already been achieved in the arts due to the fact that things have indeed improved. Inspirational figures such as Tracey Emin, who have defied the statistics, exist in the public arena – but the truth is that women are still severely under-represented in the art world.
I don't know if the link to the report I've highlighted above is the complete report or a related presentation. (Does anybody know?)

Context - previous reports

I'm providing the hyperlinks to the resources it built on as these are either missing in the document itself or the links don't work in the online version.

if only we could!
It built on The Great East London Art Audit - conducted by the East London branch of the Fawcett Society in 2013.
This report Cultural Value and Inequality: A Critical Literature Review written by Dr. Dave O’Brien & Prof. Kate Oakley is also cited as an influence. It was commissioned by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Cultural Value Project
Inequality has become essential to understanding contemporary British society and is at the forefront of media, political and practice discussions of the future of the arts in the UK

Representation of Women Artists in the UK Conclusions

In summary, the conclusions of the the Representation of Women Artists in the UK report (in the document I've read) are that:
  • female art and design graduates outnumber men
  • men outnumber women in activities relating to a relevant career for an art graduate eg solo exhibition at a large gallery
  • representation of female artists has increased over the years. An audit of female representation at non-commercial artists showed that 42% of shows were by female artists in 2014/15 compared to 31% in 2012/13
  • representation of female artists drops outside London (down to 33%)
  • gender imbalances persist at and beyond the mid-career stage
So - bottom line. It's very clear that there's a gender gap - but we already knew that didn't we?

My concerns are that the report essentially 
  • Fails to rather than formulate and test a hypothesis in statistically robust manner. Consequently it does not demonstrate that its conclusions are statistically valid (speaking as one who crunched data for a good part of her career! See NOTE at the end of this post re. some of my statistical concerns)
  • Fails to test other dimensions which ALSO contribute to levels of progression and 
  • Describes rather than analyses statistics collected - e.g it does not look for any patterns of correlation with any other relevant factors
For example, many women who choose to combine having a career with motherhood often pursue very different career patterns over the life of their career due to a desire to provide stability for children when they are young.  It's a matter of choice for some - not the dominance of a male sub-culture in the "Art". Not everybody wants to hand over their children to childminders - some are happier to allow a career to take more of a backseat role for a period of time - with a view to pursuing career development and achieving career 'markers' (e.g. get selected for the Venice Biennale; get short-listed for and/or win the Turner Prize) at a later date.

At the same time very few artists (of any gender) are ever going to achieve the 'top level' achievements. The top artists come out of a big pool of those who don't quite make it to the top.
The bigger that pool is, the more women artists will eventually make it to the top - so long as there is fair-dealing and appropriate processes to support career development.

Of much more concern - and I would argue of much more relevance to the expenditure of research funds - is the ability to
  • identify those factors that make the biggest difference to how most artists progress their careers - and become part of "the pool" and then climb out of it.
  • ensure that the data framework and sampling frame and methodology are statistically valid i.e. if you're going to count do it in the right way.
  • identify and track relevant data on a regular and consistent basis - e.g. by ONE project. (See The Countess Report below for a more methodologically sound basis for collecting and analysing relevant data)

The scope and breadth of relevant context

I'd have thought a more thorough-going review would have looked at a wider context e.g.
  • the extent to which ALL art graduates (i.e. analysed by gender) remained in full time art-related activity - thus creating a gender-related baseline for measuring engagement and progression
  • whether studies of gender imbalance in relation to other vocational degrees (eg medicine and the law) and/or other areas of creative professional activity (drama/music etc) also contribute to understanding better how 'being a woman' impacts on career progression. 
I suspect there are a fair few longitudinal studies out there for other areas where the progress of women in career fields continues to be an area of concern.

See for example the following articles highlighting the even worse gender imbalance at music festivals.
Half of music festival attendees are women. But on stage, the numbers tell a different story.
from : Where are all the women headlining music festivals? | The Telegraph 08.08.14

Plus here's an interesting observation from one female musician commenting to The Telegraph - suggesting that it's not unusual for those sitting within one area of the arts to not look to closely at what's going on in another area!
"When it comes to mindfully representing women with the right message, music is out of date in comparison to art and literature.

How do gender differences in art vary around the world?

Another consideration is whether the progression of female artists is the same around the world - or whether it varies from place to place. Study of such factors says a lot more about the influence of general culture and attitudes to and support for the progression of women.

For example if we look to the southern hemisphere....

In Brazil

In Australia

Importantly in Australia there is a report called The Countess Report  [RECOMMENDED READING]
While previous Australian and overseas studies have dealt with collecting and commenting on data about gender representation in visual art, The Countess Report adds a significant and extensive new contribution by expanding the field to include data on visual art education, art prizes and art media as well as exhibitions.
Graphic for the Countess Report 2016

Elvis Richardson has been tracking gender imbalance in art on her blog Countess since 2008
a blog that presents data and reviews on gender representation in the Australian Contemporary art-world.
hence the name The Countess Report. However her work is now funded by the Cruthers Art Foundation, and with assistance provided by the National Association for the Visual Arts and other people help with its compilation.

The important aspects of the Countess Report which others would do well to note are that:
  • it has its own well-maintained website at 
  • it has formal sponsorship for the collection, compilation, analysis and publication of the basic data (where's that in the UK?)
  • it collects extensively from a very wide variety of relevant organisations across the spectrum of art activities
  • the website provides details of the gender ratio of:
    • those graduating with art degrees from different Australian universities and art schools - and how this varied by discipline (eg ceramics vs design vs sculpture)
    • exhibiting artists in contemporary arts organisations, commercial art galleries, state museums, major museums and art galleries, public galleries, art biennales, art prizes, funding for art, art media (articles, reviews and advertising in both public and private publications)
    • the gender ratio of curators, directors and board members across all the same sectors - this then provides the scope for a much more robust and better understanding of the extent to which any imbalance relates to gender imbalance in the sub-culture which controls activities
  • very specific recommendations.
On the downside:
  • it is dependent on the veracity of the data provided by organisations and there is no genuine independent audit.
Here are the recommendations contained in the latest report - and these are relevant to all countries where gender imbalance in art is a concern.
Counting gender representation is a fundamental tool of feminist research methodology and in this report the numbers simply serve to highlight who is getting a voice, platform and support in all areas of contemporary visual arts culture in Australia.

1.   The Countess Report recommends that stakeholders in the Australian visual art sector routinely collect, analyse and publish gender representation data and use it to inform their policy decisions.
2.   The Countess Report recommends that stakeholders in the Australian visual art sector promote and advocate for gender equality in their management activities, operations and programming.
The report's recommendations are entirely consistent with the practices introduced and endorsed in services funded by the government in the UK as a method for

  • providing baselines for measuring progress and 
  • highlighting any significant disparities which deserve extra attention.

Here are two articles commenting on gender balance in Australian art 

What we still need to know

In conclusion - here's what needs to happen next

What we need to know more about

What's of more relevance is the extent to which the gender gap is:
  • changing over the lifetime of female artists where women may choose to change priorities over the course of their career
  • significantly different from those for other professions and areas of creative endeavour.
  • significantly different in other countries and associated with different practices relating to career progression
I don't believe we know the answers to these questions as yet.

Maybe more research in the future will consider the wider context for the achievement of women in professions and the arts - including the area of art and design

How data should be collected

To be taken seriously data must be robust and not open to challenge.
  • data should be informed by proper statistical approaches for generating robust analysis
  • data should ideally be collected as part of a sponsored longitudinal study which employs consistency in its approach to sampling and how data is counted in different places and institutions
  • ideally all data collected should be independently validated by cross-reference to any other sources of data (or data collected elsewhere).
I hope this post provides some food for thought.

Do please feel free to comment.


NOTE: Statistical concerns

I'm more than a bit concerned about the statistical validity of some of the conclusions of Representation of Women Artists in the UK given that:
  • Statistics on graduates were sourced from the Guardian(!) rather than from the Higher Education Statistics Agency
  • samples of different sizes were compared without any apparent awareness or acknowledgement that differences in percentages can very often be accounted for by differences in the sampling frames
    • April 2012 – April 2013: The Great East London Art Audit gathered data on 134 commercial galleries in London, which collectively represent 3,163 artists.
    • 2014-15: latest research  audited solo shows featured in the exhibition programme of 28 non-commercial galleries in London - a bit of a difference!
  • the methodology says nothing about the sampling framework in 2014-15 and how this was adjusted for any potential bias
  • changes in percentages are identified as significant between years when actually the change might easily be accounted for by the changes described in the sampling frame.


  1. Women are underrepresented in all fields. The battles fought and won years ago are being fought again in my country. We can't be complacent and think that it has all changed - it hasn't. I've noticed that teens and younger don't seem to have the same determination and 'fight' that the previous generation had. They've all been homogenized by the social media.

  2. This is a good read for The Wapping Group of Artists don't you think? ;-)

  3. Maybe they did - the "Wappers" elected a woman artist to membership in 2016!


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