The Price You Pay
The speaking fee of a prominent man in technology could fund an entire conference of brilliant women.Why?
In 1988, Jasper Johns’ painting False Start sold for $17 million, then a record high for a living artist. The Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous art collective, responded by wheatpasting Lower Manhattan with posters listing women and people of color — someone could collect work from each of them for that price. These were artists from the history books — Mary Cassatt! Georgia O’Keeffe! Meret Oppenheim! Lavinia Fontana! Eva Hesse! Frida Kahlo! Barbara Hepworth! Artemisia Gentileschi! You could literally fill a gallery with extraordinary pieces for the price of this one painting.
False Start sold for $80 million in 2006. Johns’ Flag sold more recently for $110 million. But despite rocketing prices in the art world, Berthe Morisot’s 1881 painting After Lunch is, at $10.9 million, the record price for any work by a female artist. (The Card Players, by her contemporary Cezanne, is the world’s most expensive painting at $259 million.)
Now, Jasper Johns is not to blame — not in the least. Bashful and ambivalent about his success, he is about as great a person to win the art world lottery as one might wish. Lovely Jasper Johns — besties with Susan Sontag, encouraging of female artists like Diane Arbus, often described as shy or soft-spoken—was an ally to women in the arts. And Johns continues to face lingering institutional homophobia. As recently as last winter, MoMA was found straightwashing his six year relationship with Robert Rauschenberg, calling them “friends” in the wall text of an exhibition about their work.
No, the target of their criticism isn’t Johns, but the structural inequality the sale price reveals.To this day it is impossible to imagine a female living artist selling anything for what Johns received twenty-five years ago ($33 million adjusted for inflation.) And it is not for lack of talent as the list of artists in the Guerilla Girls poster shows. Women struggle for visibility, while opportunities come less frequently and their work is dismissed as inferior. Johns, however, looked the part of a brilliant artist. He was constantly booked for exhibitions, his work was constantly reviewed and profiled in art publications. Leo Castelli represented his work, an art dealer with a gift for spotting and nurturing geniuses who were, with the exception of Lee Bontecou, white men like him.
When I hear about male “thought leaders” in the tech industry with speaking fees of as much as $45,000, I am reminded of that poster. That sum of money reveals the years and layers of decisions made that favor white men in their careers. For the price of one keynote address, you might schedule a week of talks by some of the brilliant women in the world.
Public speaking is the tech community equivalent of an art exhibition. It is lucrative and it positions you to advance. Imagine a man is booked to speak each month and receives honoraria of roughly $2,000 at each event. In a year, he made $24,000 more than a female colleague receiving no invitations. He also earned frequent flier miles and hotel points, expanded his professional network, and this boost in visibility will only lead to more opportunities.
Absence of diversity signals something other than merit went into the selection process. Sometimes it is simply that the organizer is lazy. What if someone books speakers after reading a “best in the industry” list with bias baked in like San Francisco magazine’s recent profile of six white male tech journalists? Those small acts of erasure add up. Meanwhile I hear from a number of men that it is embarrassing to receive accolades or opportunities if bias appears to be a factor.
Conference organizers, exhibition curators, and publication editors: think of the invoices you processed this year. How much money did you pay men? How much did women make? What if the entire industry has records like yours?
We are not just talking about representation. Gender bias is also about class and wages. A system that gives white men greater visibility also favors them financially. To the white men reading this, I don’t blame you for benefiting from a broken system. I invite you to speak out against the perpetuation of stereotypes and inequality. Check to see if a conference has a diversity policy before agreeing to participate in an event. If you send regrets, suggest people in your place who might never otherwise be considered by the committee. Take small steps to center people whose voices might otherwise be lost. Ending these drawn out cycles of discrimination will benefit us all.