The Devaluation of Women’s Work: Art Edition

One of the most cited reasons given for discounting the gender wage gap is occupational segregation. Men and women differ in the careers they pursue–this might be true. However, there is always selection into these careers–selection that is informed by imagined experiences and social norms that dictate one’s potential trajectory. I recently read a blog post about how doctors are generally well-paid and respected. However, this isn’t true in Russia where doctors make less than £7,500 a year.

The blogger at Crates and Ribbons tries to understand why and comes to the realization that:

The answer is breathtakingly simple. In Russia, the majority of doctors are women. Here’s a quote from Carol Schmidt, a geriatric nurse practitioner who toured medical facilities in Moscow: “Their status and pay are more like our blue-collar workers, even though they require about the same amount of training as the American doctor… medical practice is stereotyped as a caring vocation ‘naturally suited‘ to women, [which puts it at] a second-class level in the Soviet psyche.”

What this illustrates perfectly is this — women are not devalued in the job market because women’s work is seen to have little value. It is the other way round. Women’s work is devalued in the job market because women are seen to have little value. It isn’t that women choose jobs that are in lower-paid industries, it is that any industry that women dominate automatically becomes less respected and less well-paid.

This article really impacted the way I look at professions. I now ask myself, “Is this an easy path? Or have I been conditioned to believe so?” More recently, I came to a realization about my own past experiences. I spent a few weeks during the summer of 2015 interning at Christie’s, the international art auction house. The art specialists at Christie’s are amongst the top in the field, truly experts in their respective departments. Christie’s, as many know, is a coveted place to work, at the heart of the luxury goods market.

It is a fast-paced environment: auctions are time-sensitive and work cannot be postponed. The entire department works tirelessly around the year in acquiring and valuing objects before generating interest to prepare for exhibitions and sales. Travel is an innate part of the role as well. Considering the amount of skills needed–and time required–from the role, I would expect a weighty salary. However, salaries at Christie’s are not comparable to other high-profile high-risk jobs, whether it be consulting, investment banking, or sales and trading. According to Glassdoor, the average salary for a Specialist at Christie’s is $66,489. For a Junior Specialist, the average salary is $41,969. This is abysmal compared to an entering analyst salary at a company like Bain Capital: $74,141.

I would argue that specialists at Christie’s have more soft and hard skills than an average consultant or finance professional. One of the specialists I worked with in the Contemporary Indian Art department was fluent in over 10 languages (a necessary part of the job), an incredibly strong writer and communicator, and had excellent people skills (also essential since building customer relations and visiting with prospective consigners is integral to success). Most specialists have advanced degrees from top institutions. (As I was working at Christie’s King Street in London, almost the entire department hailed from Oxford and Cambridge). Most critically, the job entails a thorough understanding of the art market. As an Economics major (with a strong art history bent), I know that valuations in the art market are especially tricky. After all, the most basic rules of supply and demand don’t hold.

Why then, are salaries at Christie’s so low? Turning profits of billions of dollars, the company definitely has the resources to pay better wages. Originally, I thought that low salaries at Christie’s were due to the larger elitist culture surrounding the art market. Because the art auction business is based on personal contacts and connections to a degree, it is plausible that employees at Christie’s are well connected and thereby, already wealthy. A low salary could be a way to dis-incentivize less-connected applicants from considering a career at Christie’s. However, employees at top investment banks are also very wealthy and it’s no secret that networking is the key to a job in finance. After reading the aforementioned blog, my answer became much clearer: Christie’s–and the art world in general–is seen as a feminine realm where women are the main employees. And as Crates and Ribbons writes, “Women’s work is devalued in the job market because women are seen to have little value.” The majority of my colleagues at Christie’s were indeed women, a fact that I was immediately cognizant of during my first day of work. However, these women are some of the foremost art experts in the world and they deserve more compensation for their expertise.

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