In Linda Nochlin’s seminal 1971 essay Why Are There No Great Women Artists?, she poses a presiding explanation as to why, throughout history, those of us lacking the good fortune to have been born white, middle class and above all, male, have remained so steadfastly on the back foot (in the arts, as in a hundred other areas). “The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces,” says Nochlin, “but in our institutions and our education”.
How, then, do we – as an industry, and as a society – collectively unlearn the centuries of artistic and cultural erasure of women? With the last decade’s unprecedented rise in popular feminism, wider attitudes are ostensibly changing. But the numbers? They’re just not. Between 2013 and 2017, men made up between 89% and 96% of commercial photographers. Less than 14% of leading US fashion magazine covers are shot by women. Over 80% of news photographers are men. Clearly, gender bias is ingrained in the fabric of our systems — no matter how progressive our ‘attitudes’.
It was in light of sobering numbers like these that, in 2019, 1854 Media launched its inaugural Female in Focus award, purposed to give platform to exceptional women-identifying and non-binary photographers around the world. Harnessing 1854 Media’s global reach, Female in Focus was born to help create the conditions for change by driving awareness, producing resources and promoting female talent. A year on, and an initiative like Female in Focus remains as vital as ever. But an award alone can’t solve the problem.
To make real and constructive progress toward gender equality, we have to understand how we got here, and devise targeted practical solutions. It’s worth noting that disparity within the creative industries is just one facet of a much vaster problem: according to data presented by diversity initiative Creative Equals, women are four times less likely to negotiate than men; when they do, they ask for 30% less money. Just 12% of creative directors are women, and of this 12%, only 1-2% are women of colour. In a nutshell, explains founder of Creative Equals Ali Hanan, “people prefer to hire people who look and sound like themselves.”
As affirmed by Nochlin, these kinds of unconscious biases begin at education level and are perpetuated onwards. “Half of women leaving university already think their careers are done for before they even start,” says photographer Rhiannon Adam. Many feel they’re not taken seriously, or that they’re treated paternalistically by their peers. Without universities taking active measures to combat this, women are left primed for rejection at the most pivotal time: post-graduation, when securing strong foundations for a portfolio is crucial. “If you don’t pin down those great assignments at the outset of your career”, elaborates Hanan, “it’s very difficult to get the breaks that make your portfolio look brilliant”.
Speaking to Female in Focus, Verénica Sanchis Bencomo, founder of Foto Féminas, adds another layer: when she graduated and started picking up assistant jobs, the work was decidedly physical. Although women may be more than capable in this area, the perception that they aren’t “may have an impact on whether photographers decide to hire a man as an assistant over a woman,” Bencomo says. And so begins a vicious cycle: a portfolio or CV that doesn’t stand out is unlikely to be selected for further opportunities. What’s more, shrinking budgets and cautious clients mean commissioners are ever-less prone to taking ‘risks’ (that is, hiring photographers with slimmer portfolios).
At a 2019 panel event with Studio 1854 and British Journal of Photography, Creative Review editor Eliza Williams recalled photographer Sophie Ebrard’s experience of being rejected from an advertising job (with a company that posited itself as progressive, no less) for asking to be able to take breaks to breastfeed. Of course, we might reasonably assume that if the reason for the break were different – if an art director had to step out to take a call about another job, for example – it’d be deemed a decidedly more acceptable caveat. In any case, taking active steps to create environments that are welcoming to women – whether that means allowing time for breastfeeding, or simply making sure there’s more than just the one woman in the room – is a crucial step.
As is creating environments wherein women are protected, unconditionally, from risk of harassment. Indeed, even after #MeToo rocked workplace cultures worldwide, the photography industry’s reckoning has proved stunted. In a 2018 report in the Columbia Journalism Review, interviews with 50 different women painted a picture of leading photojournalism institutions fraught with bullying, where women photographers have accepted harassment as a given, and where people are afraid to speak out for fear of being branded ‘difficult’ — all the while, those in positions of power been known to overlook it. “When an industry is so dominated by men at every level and at nearly every major institution,” remarks Vox visuals editor Kainaz Amaria, “a toxic culture toward women is the inevitable result.”
To stop workplace abuse, this culture of passive bystanding must end. “We have to confront some ugly realities,” says photojournalist Amanda Mustard. “It’s going to be uncomfortable, and we have to be willing to be uncomfortable to make these changes… But the real change will come from every gatekeeper opening up, putting a protocol in place, and saying, ‘This is a safe space. Women, tell us what’s wrong. Tell us who was doing this to you’. If I’m totally honest, I don’t think many people want to do this.”
We know that it is black and minority ethnic (BAME) women, alongside less bodily-abled women and those from poorer backgrounds who suffer the most at the hands of gender-discriminatory structures. Less privileged women have the most to lose by speaking out against abuse, and remain the least likely to benefit from gender diversity initiatives. But the fight for equality will only be won when all women can have a seat at the table. Selma Nicholls, whose agency Looks Like Me is now represented by Getty Images, explains why diversity both in front of and behind the lens is paramount: “It makes the experience all the more interesting and exciting. And the result benefits everyone: imagery and output that feels new and authentic, springing from inclusive and balanced working environments”.
What next, then? What one, simple thing can you – the reader – take away? A start would be thinking about a photographer you know or like, and recommending them, wherever you can. Because ultimately, the simple fact is that everybody is responsible for driving palpable change. In the words of photographer Alice Zoo, “a support network needs to be established both from bottom-up and top-down, and everybody – from photographers to commissioners to clients to publications – must work together to achieve the common goal”.
There are many support networks, platforms and initiatives fighting women’s corner in the creative industries, and we’re proud to have Female in Focus as one of them. Other eminent examples include Women Photograph, Creative Equals, SheSays, Foto Feminas, Equal Lens and the SoWhiteProject, all of whom are doing vital work to transform the photography industry into a more diverse and representative place.
Applications close 31 March 2020 – 23:59 (UK Time).