In recent history, a growing acknowledgement of gender disparity in the workplace has led to more conversations about women’s initiatives and an increased focus on mentorship programs. But we are forgetting an important piece of the equation—inequality starts in the classroom.
When I was a teaching assistant, one of my favorite lessons every semester was one that dealt with gender and design. The class, which gave undergraduates a crash course on key design issues, was often the first time students would make a meaningful connection between feminism and their own work and life. For this particular lesson I would distribute a gender and arts staple—Linda Nochlin’s “Why There Have Been No Great Women Artists.” In a class that was mostly female, with one or two men sprinkled in the mix, the conversation was often fascinating. Most students were still early enough in their college education that they hadn’t read Nochlin’s piece and also hadn’t become jaded by the realities of gender inequality in the workplace, so they were very eager to offer their own perspectives about gender and design.
Before giving students the reading, I would ask them what steps they thought could be taken to solve gender inequality in the arts. “Uncover forgotten female artists,” someone would say. “We should not try to copy male standards, but come up with female-centric ways of expression,” someone else would chime in. However, as they’d read the piece, they would follow Nochlin’s description of how feminist thought developed and changed over time, and they realized that for decades feminists have been attempting to “dig up examples of worthy or insufficiently appreciated women artists throughout history” and assert that there is “a different kind of ’greatness’ for women’s art than for men’s,” meaning that there exists a distinctive and recognizable feminine style. And as valid as these attempts have been, in that hour of reading and discussion, the students would see Nochlin’s point that the issue lies more in how works of art “occur in a social situation, and are mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions, be they art academies, systems of patronage, mythologies of the divine creator, artist as he-man or social outcast.”
As an educator, that class discussion would always leave me elated, feeling like I was there when the students connected their personal work and experiences to this long line of feminist thought. But I never stopped to think how problematic it was to package gender in a neatly wrapped, two- or three-hour session. And while in class we praised how the online landscape makes it easier for women to find inspiring work by other talented female artists, examining the role that today’s academies play in determining gender relations in the workforce should have been the main takeaway of the class—particularly by questioning why our schools are often the foundations of gender inequality.
A year later, when I was a lecturer teaching my own classes, I was having a conversation with another (female) colleague and was surprised to hear her complain about the lack of female authors in the syllabus she was assigned to teach. Strangely enough, it was not something I ever considered, and I nervously looked at my own syllabus. And there it was. In both classes I was teaching, there was only one reading by a female author, and it was one I often skipped when there wasn’t enough time to cover the semester’s material. I wanted to chalk up this glaring imbalance to the fact that I was working with a syllabus template I’d inherited, and as young faculty, it wasn’t surprising I felt compelled to follow established guidelines before attempting to introduce any of my own changes.
Research seems to support this idea. One study indicated that in courses taught by men, 79.1 percent of readings were by men, while the rest were written by women or groups of men and women. In courses taught by women, the situation was only slightly better, with 71.5 percent of readings by male authors.
No matter the exact numbers behind the studies, they are indicative of a clear bias inherent to academia, which propagates a narrow view of its disciplines. How can schools foster the possibilities inherent to design or showcase the variety of perspectives that lead to better and more diverse solutions without these voices? Academia acts as a gateway that leads to inequality in other areas. Especially as art and design are becoming so intricately tied to technology, one of the most aggressively gender-biased industries, it is no wonder that the fields of game design, web design and typeface design are rife with examples of gender inequality. This image is then broadcasted to the world through a lack of gender balance in design conferences and panels, and by the disheartening imbalance in architecture and design awards. If female voices, and even more so non-white female voices, are not equally part of the conversation at these crucial entry points to disciplines, there is little doubt that future teachers and students will continue to ask—in their sole female reading—why there have been no great female artists.