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Women in the arts are winning the battle for equal employment—but they haven’t yet won the war

The latest UBS Art Basel report finds that top jobs are finally going to women—even at the mega galleries

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Employment in the arts is predominantly female, a new report finds © Art Basel

Employment in the arts is predominantly female, a new report finds © Art Basel

Has the art market shattered the glass ceiling? The latest research by art economist Clare McAndrew for the UBS Art Basel report found that not only was employment at 700 surveyed galleries around the world predominantly female (59%) but that even the top jobs weren’t just going to the boys. Nearly half (46%) of the galleries surveyed had a female founder while women took a 54% and 69% share respectively as partners and sales directors. Even at the mega galleries—defined as those with an annual turnover of more than $10m—47% of founders and partners were women. McAndrew compares this favourably to the wider labour force where the share of women in management stood at 28% in 2020. Just 8% of the top 500 companies in the US are run by women, she notes.

Buyers reflect the same shift. Data from UBS and PWC finds that the number of female billionaires has been increasing faster than their male counterparts, mostly because there are more female entrepreneurs. Perhaps being your own boss, in control of your own hours and activity, suits women well. Either way, it is already impacting the art market; in the first half of 2021, McAndrew finds that the median spend on art by women was $410,000 while male median spend stood at $163,000.

McAndrew finds that the highest proportion of female employees (62%) are under 40. But this isn’t so much a case of hiring girlish gallerinas. We are now a young industry, McAndrew notes—men and women under 40 account for 68% of the gallery workforce. Let’s face it, some of the skills needed now—defined in the report as familiarity with programmes such as Sketch-Up and Rhino—are baffling to those of us the wrong side of 40. And equality is at least trickling up, age-wise, as the industry adapts.

This relatively good news seems to go against what we learned through the pandemic: that when it came to negotiating home-school, housework and a job, women were bearing the brunt. This is undoubtedly true, but it seems that we perennial jugglers muddled through with more staying power than the men. A consultant at the industry recruitment agency Sophie Macpherson Ltd says that they had only one instance in the past year when a candidate removed themselves from consideration due to home-schooling duties—and they were a man.

The fight is not necessarily won. Auction houses are not included in the latest report and empirical evidence would suggest that while the balance is improving, these would pull some of the female percentages down. Again, it is a reflection of the buyers; as McAndrew tells The Art Newspaper, men buy at higher levels than women when it comes to the competitive thrust of an auction. Anecdotally, and based on personal experience this year, to have a supercharged art fair season in September, a clash with the start of the school year, has proved a barrier to more art world mums than dads.

The data that is missing though—as McAndrew acknowledges—is about salaries. For the glass ceiling really to smash, women would need to take home the same pay as their male counterparts. Now that’s evidence I would like to see.

• Art Basel Conversation, Art Market Talk: Galleries Adapt to a Changing Landscape, 23 September, 3pm-4pm, Clare McAndrew in conversation with Jeanne Greenberg, Founder, Salon 94 and Sophie Perceval, Co-Founder, Wondeur AI

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