November 4, 2021
The White Elephant in the room of the women’s movement is the misogyny some women in power express toward female colleagues, clients, and in the arts by being unwilling to pay women equally to men, or in other cases unwilling to pay women at all, for services rendered. The expectation that educated, professional women will volunteer their services in arts and education is a carry-over from days when upper-middle class women served as docents and on committees. Those women are to be commended for the valuable services they provided to their communities. It’s great if they choose to do so; I’ve have happily done a great deal of volunteer work for various organizations. However, when volunteerism is expected just because a service is provided by a woman her time and expertise are degraded. This is the type of attitude women have been battling for half a century. Although this behavior is more closely regulated in corporate America it is still prevalent in the non-profit arts world. Here are three examples:
I worked for an art museum doing research for exhibitions and answering scholar’s inquiries about the collection. When the time came for annual reviews, my female supervisor, who waved the feminist banner, informed me that the pool of funds for my paygrade would be going to a male co-worker because I was married, and he had a family to support. There was absolutely no discussion about out quality of work or accomplishments. In time, there were mass layoffs at the worker bee level. My former supervisor is now Executive Director making six figures.
If this behavior this seems like a small-town issue it goes on everywhere. A couple of years ago, I was contacted by a woman jazz pianist of some repute living in New York City who wanted me to co-write her autobiography. She invited me to her apartment overlooking Central Park to discuss the project. We spent an hour and a half discussing her vision. With an understanding of the scope and length of the book I explained my fee. She took my hand, examined a ring I was wearing, and said, “You don’t need the money.” She believed that her life was so fascinating (and it was quite interesting) that I would be doing a great service just by telling her story, with my name in tiny letters in the cover (maybe), and an undisclosed cut of book sales. I don’t think her book has ever been written.
Unfortunately, undervaluing the work of women by women is still going on. Since leaving the non-profit world, I went back to school earning two master’s degree, worked in corporate communications, and done arts marketing on a freelance basis and for my own Off-Broadway production. A member of a Women’s Board supporting one of the arts organizations in my city contacted me to do some work to promote an anniversary celebration. Time was of the essence; could I begin immediately? I quoted my fee, with a generous non-profit discount. As I supported the work of the organization I agreed and was assured I would be compensated. I dropped other projects to begin researching and writing. The event came and went without so much as a “thank you” in the program. When I inquired, I was told they had no intention of paying me and “anyone who cannot afford to work for free doesn’t belong here.” This happened in autumn of 2021. Surely, they would pay an accountant, lawyer, or plumber for services rendered and did, in fact, pay the male photographer and printer. Now, I’m not going to sue them over lost income, but I did learn a valuable lesson: no matter how well you think you know someone when conducting business in the arts get a deposit and have a contract. Bad on me for not doing those things. I wanted to be of service, but my professional service and expertise are valuable, earned, and deserve to be compensated. As a post-script, I received a call from the female Executive Director. She regretted the incident and offered me season tickets to their concert in lieu of payment. That’s a nice gesture, but I can’t take the tickets to my local market and exchange them for food.
Any man espousing the belief that women don’t need to be paid would be taken to task by his company and the media. I am shocked that some women still feel this way. It concerns me that we are still seeing meager strides in the production of plays by women and the lagging numbers of women directors, artistic director, and techs. I suspect that it has something to do with the antiquated belief by some, that women in the arts don’t need to be compensate or paid as much as men just because a woman is married or has a male life partner and is therefore, supported by a man. A spouse or partner’s income has nothing to do with one’s own career. This type of gender bias must stop. It is akin to the advantage taken by theater companies who do not pay actors and will not pay playwrights, even when everyone else on a production gets paid.
The attitude that women’s contributions have a lesser value than those of men is detrimental to women in all fields. Women have been pushing for a seat at the table since Victoria Woodhull ran for president. Let’s not lose any more ground. We must band together and support each other if we are to reach gender parity as creative artists.