Challenges for Women in the Arts: Reflections on the MAKERS Conference

Just a few years ago, the mind-numbing rhetoric of "post-feminism" was still in wide circulation, as though the original aspirations of the women's movement -- women's full participation in society and equal pay for equal work -- had become obsolete. Of course, the statistics betray a vastly different story.

Within the visual arts (to make an example of my own industry), gender inequality is staggering. According to the latest numbers from the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 51 percent of artists are women, yet only five percent of the art displayed in museums is made by female artists. Though women earn more than half of the MFAs granted in the U.S., only 1/3 of gallery representation is allotted to female artists. Representation, on and off the canvas, remains a key realm where visibility and influence are actively contested.

But feminism has suffered a major public image crisis, largely due to the absurd (yet enduring) stereotype of the boring, alienating, bra-burning, man-hating feminist. Ugh. The feminists I know are intriguing creatives, entrepreneurs, mothers and lovers; we love our lingerie and our men (not necessarily in that order), and are passionate about excellence, human dignity, empathy, collaboration and co-creation. A fairly relatable bunch, I would dare say.

At a moment when women and men collectively are intuiting that the vital work of human dignity embodied in feminism is unfinished, MAKERS -- an initiative of AOL and PBS which launched as a documentary and web-based video platform one year ago -- has essentially reimagined this controversial movement through the humble art of storytelling. One might say that feminism is undergoing an ambitious (and necessary) rebrand.

Last week I had the honor of basking in the radiance and wisdom of some of the world's most inspiring women at the first MAKERS Conference in Los Angeles. It gathered together prominent leaders and innovators committed to women's and working family issues for a 48-hour action plan to help define the agenda for women in the 21st century -- an ambitious, electrifying mind meld of creators across every discipline. It was a heady, historic experience celebrating a new wave of feminism alongside the life and work of its most prominent ambassador, Gloria Steinem, who was hailed by Jane Fonda as "an absolutely perfect leader for our revolution."

The conference featured a diverse array of female and male presenters who circled around what we might call a 21st century pragmatic feminism. My personal highlights included presentations by Gloria Steinem, the inimitable Val Demings, Linda Alvarado and Sheryl Sandberg, who discussed the recent launch of the Lean In Collection, a collaboration between LeanIn.Org and Getty Images to provide stock photography "devoted to the powerful depiction of women, girls and the people who support them." If stereotypes are unavoidable, Sandberg quipped, "let's give people images that reinforce the right stereotypes rather than the wrong stereotypes."

Geena Davis also gave a brilliant exposition on the work of her Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (GDIGM), a research-based organization at the forefront of changing female portrayals and gender stereotypes in children's media and entertainment. Just as a lack of representation of female visual artists has led some to clumsily demand, "why have there been no great female artists?", research at the GDIGM has uncovered the curious fact that the systematic under-representation of women in film has not shifted in decades -- from crowd scenes (women comprise a meager 17 percent) to character roles (for every one female character there are three male characters). Davis stated,

If the female characters are one-dimensional, sidelined, stereotyped, hypersexualized or simply not there at all, we're saying that women are less important to our society than men, that women and girls don't take up half the space in the world.

Then there was former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, whose continued presence within the political realm has served as a potent reminder that visibility and representation must persist in the face of violent resistance. She made the most moving appearance of the conference alongside her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly -- a nod to the fact that this dynamic new wave will thrive by integrating the talent, wisdom and influence of men who have cultivated a feminist consciousness. Together, Giffords and Kelly founded Americans for Responsible Solutions, an action committee advocating for tougher gun laws in the aftermath of the attack on Giffords which resulted in a gunshot wound to the head. Collective awe and reverence hushed the audience when as she declared in a determined voice which is still being recovered through speech therapy, "Strong women get things done."

In addition, I found it particularly refreshing to witness the Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics session in which Google X Lab VP Megan Smith suggested the innovation acronym STEM be overhauled to incorporate the arts, thus forming the new acronym "STEAM." I greatly hope this paradigm shift takes root. Language is vitally important here since it translates to visibility (yet again) as well as overall viability. Anyone tuned into to the systemic innovation conversation right now knows that science needs art as much as art needs science. The widely-held utilitarian assumption throughout the culture that the triage of gender equality advancement requires a privileging of (traditionally) masculinized fields such as engineering and science over fields such as the arts misses out on the full potential of innovation. Whether we're talking fractals or amplituhedrons, beauty is after all, the form of the infinite; every rigorous scientist knows the efficient processes of life contain within them an imperative for beauty. Why not afford ourselves the advantage of integrating beauty into the innovation paradigm to begin with? There's much progress to be made in affirming the full spectrum of intelligence, and I look forward to seeing this conversation advance further, especially given the burgeoning integrated consciousness of this present moment. That a technologist highlighted this vital nuance within the dual schemes of innovation and gender advancement is greatly promising. Multi-disciplinary initiatives such as the New Museum's recently announced Incubator Program for Art, Tech and Design is a good example of a STEAM space which addresses the needs of the hybridized creatives who are native to the convergent digital landscape.

There was a plethora of wisdom amassed through this gathering of courageous and vulnerable storytelling, but if I had to encapsulate everything I absorbed into one salient point, it would be this: Regarding the challenges of our time, when you are presented with an opportunity that you don't feel you are ready or equipped for, you are definitely ready for it. Those moments of calling in life have a prophetic quality wherein you have the choice to become a vessel for something much greater than yourself. The real wisdom is in learning how to say "Yes, send me" and allowing yourself to expand with the filling.

I suspect that would make a really good story.