This is Bullshit

The Role of the Gender Pay Gap in the Arts

“This is bullshit,” my sister bluntly states as I turn to look at her, confused by her sudden outburst. When she provides no further explanation for her remark, I begin to scan the gallery to discover what provoked her. Initially, my gaze lands on an elderly couple in the corner, holding hands as they silently examine a large photograph of a beautiful landscape. Then, my attention shifts to a young college student, furiously taking notes as she sits on a bench in the center of the room. Finally, my gaze falls onto a male photographer standing proudly next to his work, which he is attempting to sell for $10,000. After minutes of searching the room, I conclude that everything is normal. Yet, my sister is still displaying a look of disgust on her face as she finally breaks her silence to explain. Looking at me with a mixture of sadness and anger, she simply proclaims, “you should be the one selling your work in this gallery for $10,000.” At first, I am stunned and confused. Then, as I watch my sister’s gaze shift back to the male photographer selling his work in front of us, it dawns on me what she means.

Before this moment, I didn’t even notice how forgotten I am because I am a woman. It’s hard enough to make it as an artist but add being a woman on top of that and you’re looking at odds that are nearly impossible. Standing in the gallery that day, I realized something: I would likely never be able to sell my artwork for $10,000. Even if I did manage to get my work admitted into a gallery space (something that is disproportionately difficult for female artists), my work would barely sell for half the sum that male photographer was collecting. Thus, this moment was one of the first times I became directly aware of the significant gender pay gap that exists within the arts, an inequality I have continued to battle ever since.

According to the National Endowment for the Arts, female fine artists, art directors, animators and photographers earn 74 cents for every dollar a male artist makes. As a female photographer, I believe a large portion of this disparity stems from the fact that male artists are more likely to be selected for jobs and grants. Throughout my career, I have watched countless male colleagues and acquaintances easily progress in their careers. Meanwhile, I remain stagnant as I continue to receive little pay for my work and get passed up for promotions and higher paying jobs. Although deep down I know these barriers to success have nothing to do with the quality and skill level of my work and everything to do with my gender, I often feel discouraged and lost. The fact that my work as a female photographer is considered to hold so little value in the art world often impacts the worth I associate with my own artwork.

This personal outlook largely stems from the values of the world I was raised in. Growing up in an extremely conservative, patriarchal society, I learned to view men as innately more capable and deserving. As I entered my career, this perception stuck with me, causing me to degrade the value and quality of my own work. Every time I got passed up for a job or an exhibition or a grant, I would blame myself. I started to believe that I genuinely didn’t deserve these opportunities, that my artwork must be in some way inferior to that of my male colleagues. In reality, this wasn’t true. Yet, it took me a long time to dismantle this attitude and recognize the structural inequalities that are the true reasons for the adversities I faced as a female artist. In fact, I am still working on this.

Since so little attention is given to the gender pay gap and other related disparities within the arts, I had to start by looking inside myself and breaking down my own preconceived notions. I believe that everything occurring around me is a mirror of what is going on within myself. Thus, before I could even begin to fight the larger gender inequalities within the arts, I had to overcome them within myself. This meant looking inward to realize that I am just as capable and my work is just as valuable as any man in my field. It meant having the self confidence to know that I deserved every opportunity I was applying for and having the guts to ask questions when I inevitably got passed up for them because of my gender. It was only once I channeled these strengths within myself that I could begin to outwardly stand up for what’s fair and what I believe women deserve.

Primarily, women deserve more opportunities dedicated specifically to advancing their work in the arts, such as female-only grants and exhibitions. In fact, this is the primary goal of Altered States, my exclusive line that re-purposes clothing and lifestyle goods into one-of-a-kind pieces. With each sale, Altered States donates a portion of the proceeds towards art grants for women. Through this initiative, I hope to make a significant difference in the lives and careers of my fellow female creators. If I can help them avoid even a portion of the difficulties I have endured in attempting to obtain grants, then I will have fulfilled the Altered States’ mission. However, in order to make substantial structural change, women will need support outside themselves and their network of fellow female artists.

This is where men come in. We need men to check in on women and their needs. We need them to uplift and support their female friends and colleagues. We need them to recognize the power they have been inherently given due to their gender and utilize it to hire female artists and advance their careers. But, most of all, men need to educate themselves on the inequalities that exist within their careers and personal lives. There are a surprising number of men I have encountered that don’t seem to even realize the gender pay gap exists, let alone how hard it makes it for women to be successful in their careers. For example, I once dated a man who was extremely blind to the specific obstacles women face. In fact, he was so ignorant to the differences between our experiences that he would refuse to pay for my meals, insisting that this aspect of our relationship needed to be equal. But, what he failed to acknowledge was the fact that there were so many other major differences in our lives and the privileges afforded to each of us that asking me to split every meal was in fact not an equal trade, but rather inherently unfair.

This relationship was occurring in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and while he had been able to keep his job, I had not been so lucky. In fact, I was having an extremely difficult time finding a new job and was struggling to even pay rent. And while he had a family who wanted to financially support him in this hard time, I was an orphan. Thus, by yelling at me about how things needed to be equal, he was refusing to recognize everything I had lost due to the pandemic as well as the ways in which these hardships were made more difficult by my position as a woman. Finding work and opportunities as a female artist was already a major obstacle in my life and when the pandemic hit, it only brought about more adversity. I felt less valued and worthy than ever as an artist. I knew that if I had a hard time finding work as a woman before, it would now be nearly impossible. It was thus very frustrating to be dating a man who did not recognize the inequalities that inherently existed between us and how the act of paying for a meal was a much bigger burden for me than it was for him. In this way, men need to take a moment to recognize their own privileges and use these advantages to serve the people around them who are currently underserved.

While I have a lot of anger surrounding the treatment of female artists and their work, I am working on dismantling this frustration because it is not helpful to anyone. Instead, I hope to use this anger to guide me to where my passion lies and subsequently step into my power. With this, I will be able to do my part in making the arts and broader society an increasingly fair and equal place. You see, I do want to step in and “pay my half,” but in order for me to be able to accomplish this, we need gender equality. Once I make as much money as male artists and am afforded all the opportunities they are, I will happily split the bill.

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Join me here on Wednesdays at 12pm to learn more about my personal journey and begin an exploration of your own. If there are specific topics or issues you would like me to respond to, feel free to reach out to me on Instagram at @teresaflowersphotography or @nakedanddreaming. Or tune into my weekly Instagram Live stream on @teresaflowersphotography where I will be discussing these topics in more depth and answering your questions!

Thank you all for your support and encouragement over the years. I am excited to continue this journey with you!

Teresa Flowers is an internationally recognized multimedia artist based in Portland, OR. She is also the founder of Alien Mermaid Cove and Altered States.