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Women in the Arts Get Paid Less Too

But they have one advantage over their counterparts in other fields: no motherhood penalty.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Peter Miller/Flickr)

American women, on average, get paid less than men for doing the same job. Bureau of Labor Department statistics show the median earnings of full-time female workers is 77 percent of the median earnings of full-time male workers. But does this gender wage gap apply to the arts?

A study published in the December issue of the journal Social Currents finds that it does indeed. But the research also finds women who work in the arts do have one unique advantage: “In the arts, we do not find the wage penalty to motherhood that has been documented in virtually every other field, writes first author Danielle Lindemann, a Lehigh University sociologist. For most women, having a child tends to depress one’s earnings. Not so for those in the arts.

Lindemann and her colleagues, Carly Rush and Steven Tepper, examined data from the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project, a nationwide survey of arts alumni of 66 educational institutions. Looking at responses to the 2011 survey, they compared the answers of 7,680 people “who spend the majority of their work time in the arts,” to 16,104 who work outside the field, (although this latter group all held a degree from an arts institution).

Among professional artists — a category that includes actors, dancers, musicians, designers, writers, and photographers—they found a gender pay gap of $19,288, which is comparable to the $20,250 gap for those working outside the arts.

The mean annual income for male artists was $63,061, compared to $43,177 for their female counterparts.

Specifically, they found the mean annual income for male artists was $63,061, compared to $43,177 for their female counterparts. After further crunching the numbers, they report that a variety of factors that could influence income — including age, education, one’s specific artistic discipline, and the number of hours worked — only accounted for about one-third of that difference.

“That leaves $13,406.77 of the gender wage gap in the arts unexplained,” they write.

The researchers did find one piece of good news for women: When it comes to income, “Female artistic workers fail to incur the ‘motherhood penalty’ found in previous work on other occupations,” they write.

While they’re uncertain why this is, the researchers suspect “the particular forms of flexibility” some arts careers provide allow women artists to continue to pursue their work while raising children.

“The arts, more than other occupations, are characterized by project-based labor markets, and periods of self-employment,” they note. The resultant “ability to work from home, and maintain flexible hours” may reduce the income penalties mothers with dual sets of responsibilities would otherwise receive.

Of course, people who go into the arts tend to be driven by passion rather than potential earnings. But it’s telling to find such a substantial pay gap in a field that views itself as progressive and egalitarian.

As Lindemann and her colleagues conclude, “artistic careers are subject to some of the same social forces that drive disparity in other occupational realms.” Art reflects life, and artists’ pay reflects the continuing inequalities of our society.