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The Women’s Equality Party UK (WEP) is facing criticism after announcing a design competition for Equal Pay Day. The competition asks women illustrators under the age of 25 to submit artwork around the theme of “equal pay”—for free. Which doesn’t seem like it’s helping anyone close that wage gap.The competition would award £500 to the winner, but entrants must submit completed, high-quality, original work. The contest page does not specify whether entrants will retain the rights to any work submitted, nor whether the “losers” will also be compensated for their work. Critics have been responding to WEP online, calling them out for asking young women to work for free, and promoting a creative environment that devalues the work of creatives. Ironically, one person posted a comic from the Oatmeal about this very thing...without linking back to the Oatmeal. In response to the criticism, WEP has tweeted, “This isn’t a request for spec work, it's to open conversations, challenge status quo & award a winner.” However, organizations like No!Spec would argue with that.
Over the last few years, illustrators, artists, designers, and other creative workers have been increasingly vocal about the dangers of “spec work,” or completed creative work submitted without pay under the guise that it’s “good for your portfolio,” “great for exposure,” or in the hopes of winning a contest.
“Any contest that expects a designer to work for free (especially in the case of the ‘losers’) encourages the undervaluing of a designer’s labour, which ultimately undermines the quality of any professional workplace,” writes No!Spec. They ask, “Would you work for free with the hope of possibly being compensated?”
WEP contest judge Jacky Fleming, who is not otherwise affiliated with WEP, believes artists are often taken advantage of in regards to pay, but she also understands that campaigns like this can benefit both the artist and the organization. She told the Daily Dot via email:
With regard to the issue of being paid for your work, it's an ongoing problem for artists, and one I've had to confront over and over again. For some reason, people think everyone needs to be paid except the artist, who will donate their work for nothing. Sometimes I ask people who want free artwork whether they are working voluntarily too, but if not then I'd also like to be paid. On the other hand, I have often given work free to women's organisations with no budget, as a contribution to their campaign.
I would say this art competition falls into that category—but a prize of £500 isn't to be scoffed at. That's more than I get for a single drawing. Nor is the publicity which the exhibited entries will get. I'm sure people will get paid work from it, which is what we want. You have to use your own judgement to decide whether it's a cause you want to support, or not, and whether it's a for-profit organisation. I think the problem extends to social media as well, as people tweet images with no regard to copyright, or the effect of using work without permission, and often without a credit either. I've chosen not to enter competitions that expect a free exhibition for commercial purposes, and use of the image, but I think this competition is really a campaign to alert people to the gender pay gap—and they are paying the winner handsomely!
Update Sept. 28, 10am CT: The Women's Equality Party posted the following statement on its website: "Draw for More is a competition, not a commission, to kindle debate. All submissions will remain the intellectual property of the artist. The Women’s Equality Party will not use any submissions other than as part of the Draw for More conversation about the gender pay gap." You can read more here.