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Sexual Discrimination: Thoughts from the Field

Contemplating the status of women in the craft world, particularly ceramics, impels one to encourage a strong stand in all areas in which women are striving for equal rights and status with men.

In preparing to write this article I solicited comments, anecdotes, opinions, facts, and "true stories" from women colleagues around the country. Responses came by letter and telephone and were compelling in their similarity of experience, frustration, and concern.

The broad areas I wish to address are divided between professional concerns having to do with our role as artists and craftspeople, and academic concerns for those of us involved with teaching in colleges and universities. Obviously, any one of these subjects is worthy of a book-length treatment, and many of them have been so covered. Therefore, I am going to touch on these topics in a general way and share with the reader a few statistics along with insights and opinions from our colleagues in the field.



I would like to recommend to the reader a twenty-page publication by Professor Eleanor Dickonson called “Statistics: Gender Discrimination in the Field of Art.”1 Professor Dickonson has compiled hundreds of statistics broken down into many categories that give a clear picture of the status of the female professional artist in both the art world and academia. Alas, the whole picture is rather dreary. In all categories in which women participate in the art world, from grant applications to visual artists in art textbooks, listings in art magazines, and exhibition oppor­tunities, they are under-represented. According to Professor Dickonson's statistics, the numbers are getting better; e.g., in 1966the National Endowment for the Arts awarded 96% of its fellowships to male artists. In 1989, it awarded 43% of its fellowships to females. However, her conclusions are worth reporting:

  • Government and major funding agencies award the most money to male artists; groups making the awards have been mostly male.
  • Exhibitions chosen by invitation where the artist is known to the curator tend to produce very biased gender ratios that do not reflect the ratio of available professional artists.
  • Female artists are very poorly represented, if at all, in the most widely used art history books, depriving female artists of role models.
  • Exhibitions by female artists are reviewed much less than those by male artists; however, since females in exhibitions rarely exceed fifteen percent they are probably over-reviewed.
  • Although data is limited, juried exhibitions, especially those chosen by "blind jurying" where the gender, race, etc. of the artist is unknown, appear to have a gender ratio comparable to the ratio of work submitted and to the ratio of available professional artists.
  • Exhibitions chosen by invitation where the artist is known to the juror tend to produce bi­ased gender ratios that do not reflect the ratio of available professional artists. Invited exhibitions are far more numerous than juried exhibitions.

Suggested Strategies for Change:

(from Professor Eleanor Dickonson's "Statistics: Gender Discrimination in the Field of Art")

“Gender discrimination appears to have changed little in the past eighteen years of collecting ... statistics. When change has occurred it is in response to protests or when pressure is brought to bear on sensitive museums or funding agencies such as the NEA .... Change in the low exhibition rates of women ... artists could be brought about by (1) promoting more juried exhibitions, or (2) by developing political pressure to be ‘fair’ to all artists, or (3) by encouraging museums and galleries to choose art to exhibit for its excellence alone. Most artists would probably prefer the third option, which would necessitate changes in the ways in which contemporary art is brought to the attention of directors and curators of galleries and museums today.”

Another option for exhibiting art work that can be rewarding and reinforcing is the alternative "woman's space" gallery. This situation allows a woman to exhibit work while bypassing the possibility of discrimination.



Are institutions hiring women in full-time tenure track positions? How are women faculty regarded by male faculty?

The statistics are not encouraging. To begin, let us be aware that in 1987 fifty-six percent of all MFA candidates in studio arts were female.2 Ideally, that data might suggest that fifty-six percent of all studio art faculty would also be female. However, the reality is that only twenty percent of art faculty are comprised of women, and often these women are part-time, or not on tenure-leading lines.3 We see that forty percent of MFA candidates (the male ones) land eighty percent of the academic jobs in studio art.

Over and over again I heard from respondents about shabby treatment of women faculty, including one private college in which all full-time faculty are males who are tenured or tenure-leading and all part-time faculty are females who function without offices, telephones, benefits, and are excluded from general departmental communication. I heard the usual stories of snubs, put-downs, and inconsiderate treatment that becomes exaggerated for the female professor of ceramics who, in addition to being a woman, is also in the "secondary'' field – teaching a medium considered to be a minor art.

In an equipment-intensive field, women run into discrimination based on perceived physical limitations and old ideas about what is "feminine". This line of thinking determines that gas kilns are not feminine, and that "anyone who can't lift a hundred pound bag of clay will never get this job" (a verbatim quote to me by the chair of a search committee for a ceramics job for which I had applied – I didn't land the job, nor did any other female).

There seems to be an impression on the part of many artists, administrators, and colleagues that a woman artist is not a serious artist. Several respondents reported incidents in which this bias against women was manifested by women themselves. Why is it that women are often perceived as less "serious" about their art than their male counterparts? Is it because we have children? Is it because we commonly describe our studio work and our goals as artists as a part of the whole of our lives where relationships and home life become inseparable from our studio and creative lives? Matthew Kangas, a gentleman widely respected for his insight into the issues in contemporary ceramics, recently reported on the 1991 conference of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts in American Ceramics. He quotes himself as offering the opinion to a break-out group that women are under­represented in the field because they "are simply reluctant to compete."4 Unfortunately, this apocryphal statement reflects attitudes that are entrenched and pervasive.

Could the issue of the lopsided gender representation of women on art faculties as professors of art be correcting itself as males reach retirement age and are being replaced by women? At the institution for which I work, in the last five years the department of Art and Art History has hired four females to two males. The administration is adamant that both genders be represented on a short list. This could be typical of what is happening in large state institutions. However, small colleges and private institutions are able to operate largely out of the public eye and with considerable less scrutiny than the large university.

Suggested Strategies for Encouraging Change:

Feminists (female and male) need to examine faculty for gender as well as racial balance when looking for schools for off­spring, and need to let administrators know that gender imbalance is unaccept­able in an institution where either female or male children would go to college. Women must be willing to take cases of perceived inequities to college and university grievance committees and perhaps to court. New female faculty members need to find other female faculty to serve as mentors and guides to help them learn about the academic structure and ways to address issues and problems that might arise. Women art faculty need to aspire to administrative positions so that they may use their influence to address issues such as gender imbalance, salary disparities, and so forth. Women need to be able to rely on the help of empathetic male colleagues when it comes to fighting these inequalities.

It's time for men who support women to move beyond lip service and get behind women struggling to achieve equal opportunity and equal employment.



By sexual harassment I am referring to any situation in which a woman is subjected to demeaning remarks and insinuations of a sexual nature, and/or touching that is uninvited.

Respondents indicated that in their experience female professors are not as commonly the objects of sexual harassment as in the past, at least not in professional situations. There is another kind of treatment that many women consider to be a form of sexual harassment. It is the demeaning, condescending or insensitive remark that is not sexual in nature, but which is directed to a woman because of her sex. An example would be the meeting of the board of regents at a large university wherein the male regents are addressed as "Regent So-And-So" and the sole female regent is addressed as "Joanne." This kind of harassment is covert and probably unconscious.

However, many respondents report seeing their female students being "hit up" by male professors. Professor Judith Schwartz, who recently presented programs about sexual harassment both at NCECA and at the recent Shigaraki Conference, says that the object of harassment experiences a loss of power and is exploited, thus becoming damaged. She believes issues surrounding sexual harassment are problematic because our society is in an age where there is a lot of confusion in areas of morality. It is important, she says, for women to understand that harassment doesn't have to be repeated in order to qualify for action. She admonishes women to be aware that sexual remarks referring to bodies or clothing are out of place.

Suggested Strategies for Change:

Women in the workplace (such as a pottery manufacture) who perceive incidents of sexual harassment need to consult with the local office of equal opportunity and/or an attorney. Sexual harassment in the work place is illegal and not to be tolerated.

Professor Schwartz underscores the necessity for female and male professors to educate their students about what constitutes harassment, and to be committed to provide support for students who are being subjected to harassment, even if it means putting one's own job on the line. She says: "Students and faculty need to advise themselves of the deans and offices on campus that address problems of sexual harassment. Students need to refer to the student grapevine about faculty so they are alert to possibly harassing situations and can avoid professors who have reputations as sexual harassers. Students and faculty, male as well as female, need to address problems as they arise. They need to be direct in getting across the message that this particular kind of behavior is inappropriate and will not be tolerated. Students and faculties need to work for a University Policy on Women that will state clearly the standards and goals the university has in place regarding the status and treatment of women."

Professor Schwartz reminds students and faculty members that a letter to the proper personages reporting infractions in this area must give the facts clearly, including dates, should report on the feelings engendered by the harassment, and should state the desired outcome. She believes that a faculty member who comes to know about the harassment of a student has an obligation to report it to her or his chairperson regardless of perceived personal negative outcome.

Lastly, Professor Schwartz reminds us that institutions of higher education receive federal support through Title VII and Title IX initiatives that guarantee equal opportunity to all students and employees and that forbid sexual discrimination in education. These directives encourage institutions to take a stand against sexual harassment if for no other reason than to keep the funds coming in.



In what ways are female professors non-hierarchical in their approach to teaching (and what does this mean?) when compared to their male counterparts? What ramifications does this have in terms of their relationships with their students?

Obviously, hierarchy is well established in a system in which a professor assigns a grade to a student. However, many female professors report that they believe their style of teaching differs significantly from that of most males on their faculties, and the word they often use to describe it is "non-hierarchical." What is meant by this is a teaching style that is personal and humanistic, one in which the professor does not assume a stance which implies that all knowledge about the field flows in one direction, down from the font of wisdom to the callow striplings below, but rather a style in which showing vulnerability is permissible.

Many professors expressed the concern that this way of teaching is often mistaken by students as weakness or a lack of knowledge. Not uncommonly, students, insecure about their art production along with all the other insecurities that confront young adults, wish to see their professors with invincible attitudes, rampant with absolute principles, and overflowing with complete confidence.

Strategies for Encouraging Change:

Several respondents stressed the importance of female professors as role models for female students. One of the strongest reasons for hiring female faculty is so that female students in art schools comprised mostly of women may experience the positive effects of same-gender role models. Currently I am advising two male MFA candidates in ceramics. I like to think that mentoring can occur across the genders, that I can be a positive influence on my male students, that they can gain valuable insights into what it is to be an artist and teacher through our interactions. In this vein, Professor Donna Nicholas emphasizes the importance of mentoring both female and male students. She assesses their needs and is committed to being supportive of them and their development as artists as well as to larger life issues. Professor Nicholas says she "continually affirms her students' technical skills and aesthetic developments with immediate feedback, pointing out to them what it is they have just learned in throwing, etc."

I like this image of females and males mentoring females and males. This strategy for change has incredible potential for affecting future perceptions of gender and doing away with stereotypes that are negative and repressive.



Maternity leave and child care are national concerns for both females and males. We live in a society that does not place much importance on children or child-rearing.

Academics usually can make the necessary arrangements for the time off they need to have babies, as long as there are no complications. An extended leave in order to spend time with a newborn and adjust to a new life is another matter. I recently checked with the university I work for to find out what kind of leave one might be entitled to. A faculty member could take six weeks off with pay. However, the university would drop all benefits so one would have to come up with the several hundred dollars to cover health insurance, social security, and retirement for that period of time. I imagine this is a rather typical arrangement. Needless to say, few new parents could possibly take a leave under such conditions.

Here academics and independent studio artists are confronted with the same dilemma: the need for quality child care in order to make work and do a job. Professor Anna Holcombe has words of advice to those of us with children: "Good child care is of utmost importance," she says. "Unless you feel good about your child's care you will not feel good about your work. Pay for it – it's worth it. Scrimp on clothes, travel, etc., instead."

Suggested Strategies for Change:

We must be ardent and thorough in our communications with government representatives. The strongest component of National Security needs to be viewed as the health and welfare of the nation's children, not in the numbers of weapons being produced. Legislation needs to be enacted that will take some of the financial burden of child care off the shoulders of individual parents and spread it more equitably over the society at large that will derive the benefits of healthy, intelligent, and productive future citizens.



In concluding this article, I wish to quote sections of letters from two women who wrote lengthy replies to my request for ideas and opinions regarding women's issues and the female ceramist.

From Professor Georgette Zirbes, on connections and linkages: "I think it is necessary and timely for each generation of women in the clay community to make every effort to connect with other women who share this art thing from the generation older and the generation younger than oneself. If you visualize this linkage for a moment, there is a powerful connected image that immediately emerges. And if this were to happen among women who work in different manners and attitudes, women who teach and those who work full time in the studio, etc., etc. ... across the differences ... the entire network becomes obvious. In other words, we all have our stories to tell, regardless of age, location, attitude, etc., and it's time to stop saying 'do it like me,' or 'in the good old days,' or you've got to just 'do the right thing,' or 'you've got to be aggressive and assertive,' or 'you've got to be coy and pretty,' etc., etc. ... Let's just tell our stories and listen to each other and respect our differences and celebrate our similarities. When I imagine this, I get a rush of energy and power and endless possibilities begin to emerge. But it takes time and energy and work ... a demanding and permeating task."

From Jan Brooks Loyd: "I think many women on art department faculties are learning to trust each other, and learning that if they share their problems with one another rather than being competitive, they can become more empowered in addressing the problems of sexual harassment and demoralizing treatment. Many women are still so grateful to be in the academy at all that they fail to recognize that they are entitled to certain support from the department as well as a fair workplace environment that recognizes the extra work they are being required to undertake. Too many women are reluctant to complain or even give themselves the opportunity to think carefully enough about the deep feelings they possess regarding the treatment they receive from male faculty. The process of waking up to the situation is dependent on education to create an awareness and the needed empowerment to survive and even be happy. The bibliography that was passed out during the women's sessions at the NCECA conference is to be read, not stuffed into a file. I would urge every woman to read at least three or four books from that list. Furthermore, if there is a women's studies program on your campus, meet the women who teach in the program and learn about what the course content is in these programs. It will change your life forever."

It should be apparent to the readership that the general topics I have examined here are mainstream issues concerning women. As such, one would wish that the reality of the women ceramists' situation both as academician and artist/craftsperson was more soundly and equitably established in these final years of the twentieth century. I believe that a re-commitment from both men and women to principles of equality of status for the woman artist/craftsperson and the woman artist/teacher is essential both for the continued progress of women in these areas and for further growth of all of us as individuals in areas of ethics and aesthetics. The effecting of true gender equality in all areas of the field will begin an era in which our ideals as artists and craftspeople go beyond material and philosophical considerations into the realm of our most ordinary and recurring human interactions.




  1. Professor Eleanor Dickonson. "Statistics: Gen­der Discrimination in the Field of Art." California College of Arts and Crafts, 5212 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94618
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Matthew Kangas in American Ceramics.

*Author's Note: My thanks and appreciation to the many women who responded to my request for information. Particularly to: Professor Georgette Zirbes (University of Michigan), Professor Donna Nicholas (Edinboro State University), Professor Judith Schwartz (New York University), Jan Brooks Loyd (Metalsmith and former academic), Victoria Christen (Lecturer in ceramics, Macalester College), Professor Pi Benio (Adrian College), Beth Changstrom (Studio artist), Karen Koblitz (Studio artist), Professor Anna Holcombe (SU NY-Buffalo). And special thanks to Kent Miller, my mate.