As 2019 kicks off, I’ve been thinking (again) in particular about gender equality and working women.
Kelly O’Dwyer’s unexpected resignation on the weekend made it front of mind.
Regardless of the workplace or industry, so many of the challenges facing working women remain the same.
Gender based pay inequity, discriminatory recruitment and promotion practices, sexual harassment, the constant juggling of work and family commitments…. the same issues rear their ugly heads in our Parliaments, offices and hospitals, on factory floors, at mine sites, in retail stores and in academic institutions.
I’m often considering workplace equality in offices, factories and boardrooms but late last year, I attended the inaugural Women’s Lunch for the Heide Museum of Modern Art – a celebration of the extraordinary contribution women have made to Australian life, particularly in the arts. And it made me reflect on gender equality in the world of art.
Women in the arts – silenced in the studio
Australian art history books are filled with stories of our remarkable female artists; Mirka Moira, Margaret Preston, Rosalie Gascoigne, Margaret Olley, Dorothy Napangardi, Inge King. The list goes on.
But it’s no secret that there’s been a long history of women, their work and voices, being marginalised and underrepresented in the art world – in Australia and across the globe.
For centuries, women were excluded from the world of art. We have ‘Old Masters’, but no female equivalents.
When we’re talking about gender-based inequality, the studios, galleries, theatres and museums of the world are really just workplaces, like any other. While they may look and feel very different to the workstations, offices, stores or institutions many of us work in, these artistic workplaces are depressingly similar when we examine the gendered way in which they have operated to exclude and disadvantage women.
It’s an issue art historian Linda Nochlin addressed in her famous 1971 essay, ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’
Nochlin invited readers to think critically about the factors that led to female artists being underrepresented in the art world for centuries. She highlighted the institutional, economic and social barriers that conspired to prevent female artists from achieving the same status and success as their male colleagues.
Nochlin’s arguments provide a compelling rebuttal of the ‘merit argument’ which has been (and sometimes still is) rolled out to ‘explain’ the lack of female leaders in all kinds of workplaces; ‘they aren’t there because they aren’t good enough’.
As Nochlin sagely points out, it’s not that there weren’t any ‘great’ female artists; it’s just that societal barriers and expectations about the role of women worked against female artists – and their underrepresentation in the art world, for centuries, was an inevitable consequence of that.
(Nochlin’s revisited her essay in 2015. I think it’s as compelling, interesting and relevant as it was when the original essay was published in the 70s.)
Taking stock – Where are we at?
When it comes to gender equality in Australian workplaces – artistic or otherwise – the pace of change is slow and the stats reveal that we still have a very long way to go.
Before Christmas we saw the release of the latest gender equality data from the Australian Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) and the latest survey results from the National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey (NCAS). There was good news in these reports, and there was bad:
- the latest WGEA data revealed a steady increase in the number of women in management roles and a continued decline in the gender pay gap. But we still have pay gaps favouring men in every industry and occupation and, overall, women still earn, on average, 21% less than men’s full-time total remuneration.
- the latest NCAS results showed increased support for workplace gender equality and a better understanding of the problem of violence against women. But at the same time, 1 in 7 Australians don’t think women are as capable as men in politics and in the workplace, and 2 in 5 Australians believe many women exaggerate how unequally women are treated in Australia.
And we haven’t even touched on #metoo or our appalling rates of gender based violence or the struggle working parents face accessing affordable childcare……
Frankly, it’s pretty overwhelming and grim.
Is there anything to smile about?
As the year kicks off, I’ve resolved to take a glass-half-full look at things and spend a moment celebrating some of the progress we’re making:
- we have a world-first national inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace underway;
- had the largest single-year drop in the overall gender pay gap for five years;
- more employers are offering flexible and agile work options to their staff, and our National Employment Standards expressly provide for a right to request flexible work;
- more resources are being put into gathering and analysing data on gender equality in Australian workplaces – with the aim of better understanding, and reducing, inequality;
- Australians are more aware of the wicked problem of violence against women and the different forms it can take – and Governments are increasingly prioritising this issue and allocating resources and funding towards efforts to address it;
- there’s growing awareness of how our laws and legal system can work against women who are victims of sexual assault and rape – and that laws on sexual assault and consent need to be reviewed to improve women’s access to and experiences in our justice system; and
- there’s lively mainstream public debate about women in our Parliament and how they are treated and how to encourage them to be and stay there.
We have a long, long way to go – no question. But women’s voices are being heard more often, in more forums, than ever before.
It’s worth pausing for a moment to appreciate these positives before we jump back on the very long road towards gender equality in the workplace – whatever sort of workplace we’re in.