The Courage to Create : Artists take action for a Gender Equal World

The 2017 edition of International Women’s Day provided the perfect opportunity for artists and cultural professionals to reflect on what gender equality means in the arts and creative industries around the world. While barriers to access for female artists to the international arts market and their invisible contribution to  innovation in artistic expression have long been debated, the focus of the round tables “The Courage to Create: Gender Equality and the Arts”, held at UNESCO on 10 March 2017, co-organized with the French National Committee of UN, focused on the achievements of pioneering women and the new frontiers for gaining parity and artistic freedom.

The French Minister for Families, Children and the Rights of Women, Laurence Rossignol, set the scene when she stated the “women’s rights were under serious threat across the globe” but that the arts could be a vehicle for resisting these threats. Fanny Benedetti, Executive Director of the French National Committee for UN Women concurred, saying that “Gender equality is a human right and the UN Women HeForShe campaign bring women and men together to stand together and take action to create a gender equal world.

On some fronts, progress has been made. A recent study by the French National Center for Cinema on “The place of women in the cinema and audiovisual sectors” reveals an 80% increase in number of films produced by women over the 2016-2015 period. Yet, inequalities in pay remain staggering: today, the average salary of a female director in France  is 42.3% lower than her male counterparts.

Artists and cultural professionals first debated how artistic creation can break down stereotypes, particularly stereotypes related to gender. Palestinian director Maysaloun Hamoud and Israeli producer Shlomi Elkabetz spoke about their internationally acclaimed film “In Between”, which centers around three very different Palestinian women sharing an apartment in Tel Aviv, and their struggle for balance with their desire for freedom and independence with societal expectations. In the words of Shlomi Elkabetz, “This film goes beyond the usual gender representations and dichotomies between men and women, Israelis and Palestinians. Cinema is a powerful tool for challenging these stereotypes, creating new representations and inspiring change”.

Jackie Buet, Director of the Créteil International Women’s Film Festival called for a greater variety in the representations of women’s role in cinema. “Through this unique festival, we are committed to make space for women, to recognize their cultural productions, to support their efforts to drive change through their creative work”, she emphasized.

Musicians Victor Solf and Simon Carpentier from the group Her described how important it was to recognize the talents and achievements of women as creators and cultural entrepreneurs, noting that the majority of their professional team – from their manager to their producers – are women.

The courage to create

Freedom of artist expression for women was also at the centre of the debates. While being an artist is hard, being a female artist is even harder, according to Ole Reitov, Executive Director of Freemuse, which has recently published its “Arts Under Threat” Report documenting many cases of attacks and violations of the rights of women artists. He called for the establishment of an “early cultural warning system” for creative expressions under threat, as women creators are often the first to be targeted. Noting the key role of UNESCO, he declared that “countries around the world need to fully implement the 2005 Convention for the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expression, which is an efficient and compelling policy tool for ensuring freedom of creation and diversity in the arts”.

Deeyah Khan, singer, filmmaker and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Artistic Freedom and Creativity,  spoke passionately about the need to include women across  all creative sectors:  “It is not just a matter of representation but also of empowerment. Women face gatekeeping systems that can either open or close off opportunities for them to advance in their artistic careers. Women must exercise their freedoms and be able to make their own choices, and take part in the decisions that set the course of society, just as men do”.  

These experiences were echoed by panelist Suzanne Combo, composer and co-founder of the Guilde of artists musicians (GAM). As a member of several cultural governance bodies, Combo described the everyday sexism she has faced. “Women remain poorly represented in many decision making positions. I have often found myself being the only woman on committees. Women’s perspectives and contributions must move from the margins to the center of cultural life”.

Digital space offering new possibilities

New creative fields have opened up new opportunities. Norwegian artist Pia Myrvold pointed out that digital arts had opened up new opportunities, despite an enduring lack of social recognition. “Many women have been pioneers in using digital media as their artistic tools and means of expression, and succeeded in creating their own artistic space”, she asserted.

Fellow digital artist, Jepchumba, founder and artistic director of African Digital Art,  told a similar story of having to forge ahead and ignore the ignorance of those who say there is no digital art in Africa or women digital artists. Through African Digital Art, “we have been pushing boundaries and providing a platform for innovation and inspiration for African designers and artists whose work or practice utilizes digital technology as an essential part of the creative, presentation or distribution process. I have also just built a new school to train girls and young women to create using digital technologies in a very contemporary and exciting way”.

Octavio Kulesz, the first digital publisher in Latin America and who was responsible for the chapter on digital policies in UNESCO’s 2015 global report “Re|Shaping Cultural Policies”, agreed, saying that most technology companies are still dominated by men. He reiterated a theme which ran throughout through the day’s discussions, saying that without the representation and active participation of women in the cultural sector, the diversity of cultural expressions cannot truly be promoted.

We know that data and information on the status of women in the cultural and creative industries is scarce. Through our work to monitor the impact of the 2005 Convention on the Promotion and Protection of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, we hope to close this knowledge gap and bring to the fore new policy recommendations. The second edition of our global Report – that will be launched at the end of this year – will provide some new insight and inspiration”, concluded Jyoti Hosagrahar, Director of the Division for Creativity in the Culture Sector at UNESCO.