Gender equality and the arts – an interview with Audrey Pulvar

Deconstructing stereotypes and promoting freedom of artistic expression for female artists are at the core of the debate on Women and the Arts, taking place at UNESCO Headquarters this week with UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for artistic creativity, Deeyah Khan. International Women’s Day, on 8 March, is a chance to celebrate women’s achievements but also examine the barriers that still exist in gaining gender equality.

This year’s discussion will also explore the women as pioneers in the cutting-edge field of interactive art with contributions from Norweigan artist Pia MYrvoLD and African digital arts entrepreneur Jepchumba. It will be followed by a concert of the self-described “male feminist” group Her and French singer-songwriter Louane.

The journalist and writer Audrey Pulvar will moderate the event. A long-term advocate for women’s rights, Pulvar has written two books on Women and the Arts. She spoke to UNESCO…


One of the main themes of the event is stereotypes of women as represented in art and as artists and cultural producers. You have written two books about this topic, one looking at representations of women and the other profiling two dozen female artists, philosophers and thinkers. From your research, what would you say are the main stereotypes women face and have these changed over time?

The first strikingly persistent feature is that women represented throughout the ages in art are often honoured or idealized and assigned particular roles. So when women in real life want to break free of these moulds to become artists and thinkers in their own right, they are usually treated with suspicion. Questions are raised about them marrying and having children – personal questions that a man would rarely have to face.

And I don’t just mean, for example, Doris Lessing who in 1949 left her two young children in Africa to pursue her work in London – a choice that continued to be scrutinised after her death in 2013. This scrutiny of female artists, journalists and thinkers’ personal lives persists today. And many of these women, in pursuit of their quest for their freedom to create, often end up living lives of solitude and sacrifice.

You have just mentioned some of the consequences women face in their freedom to create. This is  central to UNESCO’s work and the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expression in particular. What other challenges do you think women face in order to pursue a career as a successful artist or journalist?

No one has been able to sum up the situation better than the Guerrilla Girls in 1988 in their poster entitled “Advantages of being a woman artist”: such as knowing that your career might pick up after you’re 80, and getting to choose between your career and motherhood. And you never have to undergo the embarrassment of being called a genius because your work will always be credited to having an excellent male teacher!

But similar barriers exist for women in all walks of life, often that women lack self-confidence. They fear that if they ask for the same rights, the same work conditions, they will be treated as a nuisance. This is something that I personally have felt for my whole career as a journalist and writer.

Another problem is that women still face harassment in the workplace; I see it often working in the press. Women have to make split-second career decisions about how to react being inappropriately touched and are accused of having no sense of humour when they protest.

You have said in the past the Simone de Beauvoir’s saying “one is not born a women, one becomes one” has been an inspiration to you. Why has that been such a source of inspiration?

We are born equal but society and our peers determine who we become. I often also put a new twist on de Beauvoir’s words and say that “you are not born a feminist, you become one”. My opinion is that one can make a political choice to work towards a fairer society that benefits both women and men.

As part of my work, I go into schools to speak to young women, alongside their male colleagues, about women having career ambitions. I tell them that they can demand the same pay, that their work should be valued as much as a man’s and that if they are victims of unwanted attention it is not their fault.

In fact, talking to these young people partly inspired me to write “Libre comme elles: portraits des femmes singulieres” (Free like them: portraits of singular women), as they would often ask me who my role models were. The twenty one women in the book achieved very different things but they had great determination – they inspired me.