An artful truth about gender bias: Lessons from the art market

| April 23, 2018

In late 2017 a record sale of an artwork by an Indigenous woman, Emily Kngwarreye, drew attention to the substantial gender wage gap in the art industry. The brilliant Kngwarreye piece attracted the highest price ever paid for a painting by an Australian female artist. But at $2.1 million dollars it was $2 million short of the record price paid for a work by an Australian male artists.

The serious gender disparity in art sales has received little attention until now. Fortunately, new research by Professor Renee Adams and her colleagues is helping change that by shining a light on the vast discrepancies between commercial auction prices for art work by female and male artists.

Women are often implicitly or explicitly blamed for their own inequality. When asked why so few women are in leadership positions, people often point to evidence that women do not like competition, or argue that women do not like taking the risks that leaders must take.

When asked why women earn less than men, people often argue that women work less because they prefer to take care of their families.

To make the case that the barriers to female equality are real, it is thus important to take women out of the picture. The market for art allows us to do this.

Together with my co-authors, Roman Kraussl, Marco Navone and Patrick Verwijmeren, I study the role of gender and measures of society’s attitudes towards women in the art auction market. For our purposes, the important feature of this market is that artists play no active role in the auction process. Transactions are between art collectors or investors, and art prices reflect their preferences, not the preferences of artists.

Using a sample of 1.5 million auction transactions for paintings in 45 countries from 1970-2013, we document that the average price for paintings by female artists is 47.6% lower than the average price for paintings by male artists.

This is a startling difference that is large even compared to typical estimates of gender gaps in wages.

Although some argue that biological factors might lead women to produce systematically worse art, there is no credible scientific evidence for this hypothesis. There is also no evidence that women produce art that is systematically less pleasing to art auction participants.

In fact, we argue that one cannot infer the gender of an artist by looking at a painting.

We conduct two experiments to examine this hypothesis. In the first experiment, we ask participants how much they liked the painting after they guessed the gender of the artist. This allows us to measure whether perceived gender might affect a person’s appreciation of the work.

In a second experiment, we randomly associated fake male and female artists’ names with images of paintings and asked participants how much they liked the painting. To avoid associating fake artist names with real paintings, we “created” our own paintings.

In the first experiment, we find that participants who are male, affluent and who visit art galleries have a lower appreciation of works they associate with female artists. In the second experiment, we find that affluent participants have a lower appreciation of works we associated with a female artist’s name, particularly when they visit art galleries.

Since affluent males who visit art galleries are most likely to represent the typical bidder in an art auction, we believe the evidence is consistent with the idea that “Women’s art sells for less because it is made by women”.

If biology does not explain the price difference, what does? We argue societal attitudes towards women do. We find that the discount for female art is higher in countries with greater gender inequality. We also find that auction prices for the same artist is lower in countries with greater gender inequality—but only if that artist is a woman.

Our results highlight the importance of culture in shaping economic outcomes for women. Even though the artist does not directly participate in the secondary market, outcomes in the secondary market can have a profound influence on artists’ careers. Prices in the secondary market can affect prices in the primary market and alter incentives for creating art. The auction market also plays a fundamental role in “our understanding of what is good and bad”.

More generally, our results highlight that there are significant societal barriers to women’s careers. Unequal outcomes for women cannot always be attributed to women’s preferences for family, lower risk and less competition.

Our results suggest that more needs to be done to achieve gender equality, especially in people’s minds. Orchestras conduct blind auditions to overcome biases. Name- and gender-blind recruiting and evaluations can also be implemented in other settings.

In my department at the University of New South Wales, I spearheaded an initiative to do blind assessments of potential faculty candidates. Before we select candidates for interviews, we evaluate their research without seeing their names or institutions. This ensures the same quality hurdle applies to everyone.

In the art market, it would be difficult to conduct blind auctions. But, data and research such as ours can help raise awareness of the problems that exist.

This article was originally published on BroadAgenda. Read the original article.