‘Little Chance to Advance’: Why Women Artists in Academia Are Left Behind 

If you are currently attending or working in an academic arts institution, look around. What is the ratio of women to men in the student body? What proportion of the faculty is female? How many female faculty members are tenured? How many department chairs or deans are women? At many institutions, there is a visible disproportion between the number of women who are students versus the number who make it to ranked, tenured faculty or senior administration. This conspicuous lack of women in positions of power is the impetus for the groundbreaking 2015 study “Little Chance to Advance? An Inquiry into the Presence of Women at Art Academies in Poland,” published by the Katarzyna Kozyra Foundation.

Karolina Melnica. Celujacy (Excellent), n.d.; performance documentation.

Karolina Melnica. Celujacy (Excellent), n.d.; performance documentation.

Though the data portion of the study concentrates on Poland, it would be easy to extrapolate the majority of the philosophical findings to art departments, colleges, and universities around the world. “Little Chance to Advance” illustrates the cultural, psychological, and environmental factors that operate on individual and systemic levels to disenfranchise women, both within and beyond the academy. Currently, across the nine Polish visual art academies, women constitute 77 percent of the student body, but only 34 percent of assistant professors, 25 percent of associate professors, and 17 percent of full professors. In essence, the higher the level in the visual arts academy, the more women disappear. Are they opting out? If not, at which points in their trajectory are they being pushed out of the system?

Using data obtained from the academies and the Central Statistical Office of Poland, anonymous questionnaires, and in-depth interviews, “Little Chance to Advance” found that the gaps can’t be explained by a single factor. Students of both genders self-report similar aspirations and priorities, including the willingness to forego a family for the sake of their career; in fact, women are less eager than men to take care of their families after completing their studies. Equally significant, though divergent, were the responses to questions regarding employment strategies: Women put their faith mainly in experience, credentials, and hard work, while men placed more emphasis on social influences such as networking, family background, and even “having a romantic affair with someone important.”[1] The Literature Review and Results sections of the study discuss social capital and the ways in which power is transferred along gendered networks. In 2016, this isn’t surprising information—examinations of male networks of power and the “old boys’ club” have been available for quite a while—but the study rightly asserts that “social capital might be of even greater importance in the art world due to its vague criteria of evaluation and close relations with protégés” and “The importance of networking increases in dysfunctional institutions which offer few transparent paths of promotion.”[2]

The report takes a bleak turn at the discussion of psychological factors that regulate and shape the way that women move through the academy. It’s often assumed that women desire to perform traditional family roles and will willingly accept related career sacrifices, even though the data shows otherwise; thus, professors don’t promote women because they assume they will abandon their artistic practices (the study calls this “preventative discrimination”). In one interview, a professor said, “After their second, third year, women become less active as artists and start transitioning into the realm of motherhood, womanhood, the family. If I see a female student in her fourth year and she comes to classes with a small dog or a pet, I know she will be pregnant very soon.” In turn, this preventative discrimination can result in a lack of both institutional and informal rewards for good work, such as merit scholarships and introductions to a larger network. Further, women also report bullying and sexual harassment as impediments to their continued interest and advancement. To be clear, the problem is not simply that men are barring access to women; women also participate in sexism. The study shows that male students receive references from male professors at a rate of 27 percent, compared to 18 percent for female students—but there is a similar disparity for female professors, who provided references to 22 percent of male students, and only 13 percent of their female students.

Karolina Melnica. Celujacy (Excellent), n.d.; performance documentation.

Karolina Melnica. Celujacy (Excellent), n.d.; performance documentation.

“Little Chance to Advance” makes a significant contribution to the growing body of literature on women’s status within the arts. Though no other lateral region-specific studies have been done on the advancement of women in art academies, related investigations have been done to quantify and assess the status and representation of women artists. For example, the Brainstormers 2005 report analyzed seven top-ranking art schools on the East Coast and found that although MFA programs comprised an average of 60 percent women, the rosters of Chelsea galleries that these programs supposedly fed included an average of only 33 percent women. Michol Hebron’s ongoing Gallery Tally project also makes gender and commercial representation visible by presenting artist-made posters that show the gender makeup of represented artists at galleries around the world. In the UK, a-n’s 2006 “Making a Living as an Artist” report found that the mean annual pay for women in the arts is £19,344, compared to £23,492 for men [3]; a-n plans to publish a new comprehensive study this spring. Additionally, this conversation is not limited to the arts—other disciplines are also examining gender bias in academia.

There’s a lot to learn from “Little Chance to Advance.” The report points to the serious work that needs to be done both within the halls of academe and beyond, and the statistical and ethnographic data it contains provides a much-needed framework for change. Some issues, like networking and confidence building, may be readily addressed; others, such as the absence of role models and the very real influence of a patriarchal culture in contemporary Poland, will involve a more long-term effort to transform. Still, the study has the potential to have far-reaching effects. Some day, art academies may at last be able to offer the assurance of professional success to all their students equally, regardless of their gender.


[1] All quotes from the study can be found in “Little Chance to Advance? An Inquiry into the Presence of Women at Art Academies in Poland,” Katarzyna Kozyra Foundation, 2015, accessed online at http://katarzynakozyrafoundation.pl/en/projects/research on April 6, 2016.

[2] See also Zdenka Šadl, “‘We Women Are No Good at It’: Networking in Academia,” Czech Sociological Review, 2009, vol. 45, no. 6: 1,239–1,263. Accessed online at http://sreview.soc.cas.cz/uploads/325216c2e7609c1e783d709eaae64d3fe5410b7b_SadlSC2009-6.pdf on April 6, 2016.

[3] Sadly, the original study is now behind a membership paywall, so this data comes from “Women in the Arts: Some Questions,” accessed at http://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2012/mar/05/women-in-the-arts-introduction on April 6, 2016.