Over the past couple of years I’ve moved out of a long-term job as a biologist in the public service, finished an almost equally long-term bird illustration contract, and begun teaching some of what I’ve learned about wildlife art to interested members of the public. I’ve now run dozens of classes – at the ANU Centre for Continuing Education, for the Woodlands and Wetlands Trust at Jerrabomberra Wetlands, with the Watercolour Group at M16 Community Artspace, for the Tablelands Regional Council in far north Queensland, and now with Canberra NatureArt Lab at M16. I’ve met scores of committed and talented students who are enthusiastic about the environment and wildlife art. That’s all good and encouraging and indicative of a broad groundswell of community interest in art and the natural environment, but something strange is going on - for some reason well over 90% of participants are women. What’s the story, blokes?
I think a couple of factors are at play here. First, maybe men are less likely than women to try something new where they might initially appear incompetent – men like to be seen as successful. Conversely, women may be more ready to give art a try just for interest’s sake, regardless of their skill level. Secondly, perhaps wildlife art is seen as somehow not ‘gender-appropriate’, rather like a declared interest in birds, flowers, butterflies etc., though it’s clearly OK for men to hunt and fish and bushwalk and photograph wildlife. It’s even borderline cool to be a birdwatcher (birder), and here I think there is a clue to what’s happening. At least part of it is about cultural expectations, with your gender determining the way you ‘should’ behave in choosing and pursuing your interests.
Birding covers a wide spectrum of engagement and dedication, all the way from a general interest in what’s in the garden to the devoted twitcher who lives for the next new species, but this last category is overwhelmingly male. The over-the-top enthusiasm and competitive approach seem to legitimise this kind of birding as a proper male pursuit, and the same seems to be true of wildlife photography as well. However, public perception of these pursuits as male-dominated versions of hunting behaviour is thankfully shifting. Not so for wildlife art, but why?
Interestingly, though men are so scarce in wildlife art classes, they make up the large majority of the few who succeed in making a career from this kind of art. In Penny Olsen’s history of Australian bird art, Feather and Brush (CSIRO Publishing 2001), she profiles 34 leading artists and 28 of them are male. This difference certainly doesn’t reflect any consistent difference in raw talent. Maybe it’s because male artists ‘behave like men’ in being more ambitious, pushy and self-confident than their female counterparts? Is it as simple as men being socially programmed to feel entitled, and women expecting not to be taken seriously? Or is it that men who do engage in a field seen as ‘non-masculine’ are particularly determined to prove themselves, while women are more relaxed because their involvement is accepted?
This aspect of the inequality seems to be reflected in the division between art and science. In the sciences, women are again a relative rarity, especially in engineering and maths, and the sort of geeky hyper-focus and enthusiasm that is seen as stereotypical behaviour for engineers is mirrored in the behaviour of some top birders. Interestingly, female mathematicians and engineers in particular face the sort of pressure to conform that I think discourages male would-be wildlife artists – they are seen as acting outside the norm for their respective sexes. The commitment it takes to push through this means they tend to perform better than average for their cohort, but you are left wondering how many are discouraged from ever trying. For female school-leavers, rates of participation in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) are actually falling, reportedly due to ‘unconscious gender bias’.
Elsewhere, women seem to be rather better represented in the arts generally - not equally, but with a much higher ratio of female involvement than in the sciences. So perhaps the issue isn’t art per se, it’s the way wildlife art is perceived and valued. Does our society regard wildlife art as somehow trivial, sentimental or irrelevant alongside the ‘fine arts’ and their focus on the human condition? This would be particularly ironic while the world is facing a wave of environmental upheavals and extinctions that threaten humanity itself – surely one of the great subjects for art to take on? If so, it’s up to its practitioners to address this, and for male wildlife artists to play their part, even if it’s simply by changing community expectations. If you feel this is a real issue, it’s time to step up, blokes.