Where Have All the Female Illustrators Gone?

Thanks a MillionFor the longest time, I had the dis­tinct impres­sion that there were pre­cious few women illus­tra­tors in the chil­dren’s book mar­ket. Can you blame me? Accord­ing to one not­ed illus­tra­tor, a scant 20% of the illus­tra­tion work goes to women. If that’s true, no mat­ter how you look at it, that’s a pret­ty low per­cent­age. When you set that per­cent­age next to the rather large, com­pre­hen­sive list of female artists avail­able today, the per­cent­age seems even more egre­gious. What’s going on here? Time to ask some hard questions.

Ques­tions are what led me to write this par­tic­u­lar blog. Recent­ly, I approached the edi­tor of a cur­rent work-in-progress about seek­ing out a female illus­tra­tor for one of my new books. The book is writ­ten by moi, a woman, and is about women, and so I thought it only right that the book be illus­trat­ed by a woman as well. He did not dis­agree. So, to help mat­ters along, I decid­ed to put togeth­er a com­pre­hen­sive list of female illus­tra­tors from which to choose. To build that list, I went on Face­book, sug­gest­ed I was build­ing such a list, and asked my FB friends who should be on it. The response? A ver­i­ta­ble del­uge of names! I was pleased, but more than a lit­tle sur­prised. Why did I not have a sense of their pres­ence in the mar­ket­place, I asked myself. I’ve been in this busi­ness for more than 30 years, and yet I had no idea of such a dom­i­nant female pres­ence. What were the reasons?

Are the skill sets of male and female artists sig­nif­i­cant­ly dif­fer­ent from one anoth­er? A female art teacher I spoke with sug­gest­ed that, on aver­age, men have a bet­ter spa­tial sense and a bet­ter intu­itive idea of per­spec­tive than female artists, while women, on the whole, are bet­ter at draw­ing fig­ures. I find that argu­ment intrigu­ing. I can per­son­al­ly think of an artist cou­ple I know for whom that is exact­ly true. But I don’t know how com­mon that is. I do a lit­tle paint­ing, myself, but I’ve nev­er attempt­ed illus­tra­tion, so this is not my area of exper­tise. Still, it would seem to me, for the many dif­fer­ent kinds of books that are pro­duced, more than 20% of them would ben­e­fit as much from the skills of a woman as that of a man, whether or not those skill sets differ.

There may be anoth­er rea­son why the lion’s share of illus­tra­tion work seems to go to men rather than women.

Even a cur­so­ry look at the pub­lish­ing indus­try will reveal that women dom­i­nate the field. How many male edi­tors or art direc­tors do you know? Go on. Count them. If you need more than one hand, I’d be sur­prised. When it comes to illus­tra­tors, which gen­der do you think a female edi­tor or art direc­tor will be inclined to hire? Go on. Be hon­est. And if that male is cute? For­get about it! I’m not blind. I see all the flirt­ing that goes on between male artists and the women who hire them. Still, I’d nev­er thought about how that casu­al inter­play might impact the selec­tion of illus­tra­tors for book projects. (And don’t even get me start­ed on the num­ber of women NOT win­ning the Caldecott!

Do all male artists flirt? No, not all. Does sex­u­al heat always play into the hir­ing choice of an illus­tra­tor? Absolute­ly not. To sug­gest so would be an insult to many out­stand­ing men work­ing in this field who eschew the very idea of using their man­ly charms to secure a con­tract. How­ev­er, to deny that gen­der pref­er­ence is, indeed, a fac­tor on many occa­sions would be, at best, dis­hon­est. That’s not hap­pen­ing here.

So, what is the solu­tion? How can we even the play­ing field for women artists? That’s a tough one. I have a sug­ges­tion, though, a place where we can begin.

We can and should encour­age edi­tors and art direc­tors to do a bet­ter job of shar­ing projects with female illus­tra­tors. We should raise our voic­es when­ev­er we encounter this type of gen­der inequity. And, as authors, we can make a con­cert­ed effort to sug­gest and rec­om­mend more female illus­tra­tors for our own books. That’s my plan, and I hope oth­er authors will do likewise.

Heck, my own future might include cov­er art and pic­ture book illus­tra­tion. If it does, when I ven­ture out into the mar­ket­place, I’d like to find a lev­el play­ing field. Would­n’t you?

6 Responses

  1. I have won­dered if there is a gen­der bias in the judg­ment of what makes good art. I still remem­ber in art school peo­ple being crit­i­cized for art that looked “too fem­i­nine” or praised for “strong, mas­cu­line lines”. I have won­dered if, as in so many oth­er areas, the male sen­si­bil­i­ty about things dom­i­nates our cul­tur­al ideas about what is actu­al­ly good art, so that female expres­sion gets rel­e­gat­ed to sec­ond place. It would be inter­est­ing to see what the world’s great art would look like if, instead of men, women had been in pow­er for the past 2,000 years.

  2. Thanks for writ­ing this, Nik­ki. As a woman illus­tra­tor (and woman author) I’ve noticed this dis­crep­an­cy for years. The biggest shock­er was when I was invit­ed to the 40th anniver­sary cel­e­bra­tion for Read­ing Is Fun­da­men­tal in DC. There were around 30 of us illus­tra­tors par­tic­i­pat­ing and I could count the women on one hand. I felt real­ly out of place in the social­iz­ing, but tried to keep up with the guys… 

    There does seem to be a glass ceil­ing, but I try not to let it both­er me. I just want to be myself and not have to play games to cre­ate the life I want to live. I just wish it were not so much of a strug­gle to get recog­ni­tion, where­as the “love light” seems to shine more on the guys. All we can do is do our work and know we do our best.

  3. I just found this blog by typ­ing in the ques­tion, “Why are there more men in the indus­try of book illus­tra­tion than women”? This popped into my head after look­ing at my new pur­chase “Artist to artist 23 Major Illus­tra­tor Talk to Chil­dren about Their Art”. As a pub­lic school art teacher in the Mis­sis­sip­pi Delta, I often pair male and female sib­lings to work on projects togeth­er. My orig­i­nal rea­son­ing was in hopes of per­pet­u­at­ing their desire to work on art projects at home togeth­er, instead of just play­ing video games. Also this area is so sex­ist, the arts are viewed as wom­en’s work or tri­fling play. By par­ing a male and female togeth­er with­in the same fam­i­ly, it buffers the stig­ma the male stu­dent may feel when wear­ing a smock to paint or design­ing jew­el­ry or a paint­ed dress. I know see the inate strengths and weak­ness­es that both can bring to the easle. I don’t know what the answer is, but I hope to write and illus­trate my own books some day. Life takes time, ener­gy and mon­ey and men seem to invest far less time and ener­gy at work yet receive more pay.

  4. Nik­ki, great post. There is always a flur­ry a of blog posts and talks on Illus­tra­tion forums, after a Calde­cott. (though yours was not about woman and the award, most are this week)
    I’ll throw out a few thoughts, inspired by your blog.
    Are men viewed, in pub­lish­ing, as more seri­ous about their art?
    Are men just fun­nier? Eas­i­er to work with for the Art Direc­tor and Edi­tor, are woman more dif­fi­cult to work with?
    Do men con­nect bet­ter with groups of chil­dren, teach­ers, librar­i­ans when out pro­mot­ing their books?
    I do know their pre­sen­ta­tions can be wild, fun­ny and kids love them.
    Are woman more restrained, more self con­scious, both in, as sug­gest­ed before, pro­mot­ing them­selves, and then the book?
    While woman Illus­tra­tors total­ly out­num­ber the men, woman tend to be used more in edu­ca­tion­al pub­lish­ing, with many of the larg­er com­mer­cial con­tracts going to the men.
    Male Illus­tra­tors tend to be more abstract in their art, woman tend to want to cap­ture the faces and expres­sions accu­rate­ly and sweet­ly, espe­cial­ly if draw­ing children.
    It did seem like “we had come a long way baby”, from a time when most ele­men­tary teach­ers were woman, but the prin­ci­pal and vis prin­ci­pal were men. For some rea­son, per­haps because of our very make­up, we real­ly haven’t.
    It is so hard, when you think some­thing like being an Illus­tra­tor (most often a job that requires no actu­al face time with the pub­lish­er, just emails and the odd phone call) would put men and woman on a lev­el play­ing field, yet it does­n’t. I know many male “work­ing” Illus­tra­tors who strug­gle as much as we woman do to get the every day com­mer­cial and edu­ca­tion­al book con­tracts, who’s art style is high­ly real­is­tic or just as “cute” as many of the wom­an’s, so I am gen­er­al­iz­ing in the above comments.

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