Celebrating women in Sydney’s creative fields

Ahead of International Women’s Day we spoke with academics and creative leaders in music, visual art and design

Across the globe, March 8 is celebrated as International Women’s Day, a day to take stock of the achievements of the women who have come before us and look ahead to a future with gender parity. Aspiring professionals in the creative sector face a unique set of barriers to success. For creative women, these barriers can be particularly acute. A report released by the Australia Council for the Arts in November 2017 found that male artists earned on average 32 percent more than female artists in 2015.

Despite such obstacles, Australian creative women continue to succeed and to inspire the next generation. We spoke to three creative leaders at Sydney to find out more about their career paths and personal journeys.


Liza Lim
Sydney Conservatorium of Music

Composer Liza Lim has only just run out of room on one hand to count the number of times she has been programmed solely with other women. As a Professor of Composition at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Liza is working to address the serious gender inequity in the music industry. In her 30-year career Liza says she has often been the only woman composer represented on a concert program, a whole festival or season, a panel, or even just in the room. Liza currently leads the ‘Composing Women’ program, which provides significant opportunities and mentoring for exceptional, early-career female composers.

Liza is a highly-acclaimed composer and has received commissions from some of the world’s pre-eminent orchestras including the Los Angeles Philharmonic and BBC Symphony. Her own research subjects include ritual and non-Western performance practices as well as ideas around ecological thinking and distributed creativity. This year her opera Tree of Codes will be presented in the US while a new work exploring ecological fragility premieres in Witten and Vienna. 

Have you had any significant role models throughout your career?
Liza: I’ve had a number of wonderful mentors – firstly, Rosalind McMillan, my high school music teacher at PLC Melbourne who encouraged me to compose and introduced me to contemporary music as a teenager. Also composition teachers Richard Hames and Riccardo Formosa who provided a strong technical grounding in composition that I carry into my own teaching.

How do you think the creative landscape has changed for women over the past century?
Liza: One issue is that women’s creative work is so often undervalued and then gets lost historically. There definitely have been women composers who were wildly successful in their day and made extremely significant contributions to music – from Hildegard von Bingen in the 12th Century whose Ordo Virtutum is the oldest surviving morality play, to Renaissance composer Francesca Caccini (1587-1640) who wrote one of the first operas by a woman, or Australia’s own Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912-1990), who composed a number of operas, did pioneering work with non-Western music and who moved in the most glittering artistic and intellectual circles in the States. I think there’s a connection between protecting the legacy of women’s achievements and improving the conditions for new generations of composers to thrive so that we’re not always re-inventing the wheel and feeling that there are no role models.

Based on your experiences, what advice would you give to women considering pursuing a career in the creative sector?
Liza: Seek out mentors, build community by collaborating with peers, think globally (that’s what the internet is for!), ‘connect the dots’.

If you could put on a parade for International Women’s Day, who would you put on the main float?
Liza: Hard question – so many possibilities! I’d love to see someone like Australian engineer-author-activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied represented on a float – a brilliant, courageous woman of colour who is positive life-force personified. But I’m also seeing incredible moral courage from teenage girls who are forced to become warriors for social justice through horrendous circumstances – Malala, the Palestinian, Ahed Tamimi, and out of the recent Parkland school massacre in Florida, Emma Gonzalez, amongst many others. Something of incredible human historical importance and resonance is being constellated in these young women and I’d want to celebrate them too.


Cara Wrigley
School of Architecture, Design and Planning

While Dr Cara Wrigley was a student a female academic mentor once told her, “Cara, you will have to be twice as good in half the time – it’s just a fact of life”. Having been made Associate Professor of Design Innovation within the School of Architecture, Design and Planning’s Design Lab at the age of 31, it’s clear that Cara took those words to heart.

Cara heads up a team of design researchers within the university who are driving innovation efforts with many different industry partners. The team are currently working to design artificial hearts which will one day save the lives of patients suffering from cardiovascular disease.

Have you had any significant role models throughout your career?
Cara: Yes. For each period throughout my career I have sought out strong female mentors. The impact they have on you can be profound. My mentors have given me advice on how to handle situations, frame things better and deal with whatever might have been plaguing me at the time.

Was there a moment when you realised the world treats women differently to men?
Cara: I knew this back in high school when I was offered home economics as a subject preference over manual arts, which was only offered to the boys. I fought it but at a private boarding school run by a male principal – a 15-year-old girl was never going to win. My parents sat me down and told me that they supported my cause but I should learn to compromise more. To this day anyone who knows me will tell you I don’t compromise and am stubborn to the core.

Based on your experiences, what advice would you give to women considering pursuing a career in the creative sector?
Cara: For anyone thinking about becoming a designer… the builders or manufacturers you have to deal with are usually always men and this can make you feel very out of place. You will have people tell you “you’re getting too emotional” or “don’t take it personally” or my favourite “I think you’re being too precious about it”. My advice is to turn the anger that you will no doubt experience from sexist and ageist situations within your role into motivation for a stronger performance in the long game.


Julie Rrap
Sydney College of the Arts
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

Julie Rrap is known for her bold feminist artworks. Her work explores representations of the body across many mediums, including performance, photography, installation and video. Julie has been creating art since the mid-1970s and her work is held in every major Australian public collection, making her a valued member of the teaching staff within the School of Contemporary Art.

Julie is currently making new work for an exhibition at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney later this year. The project, titled Blowback, involves 30 black and white portraits of women artists each performing the action of breathing out. Each portrait is combined with a glass element showing the ‘breath’ of each woman, created by grinding the glass surface using metal grit and water. The work is a suggestion of the poetic expression of a breath captured but also a type of silent protest, ‘voiced’ by each woman. This artwork was conceived long before the recent #Metoo movement but bares interesting connections to the issues raised by this campaign.

Have you had any significant role models throughout your career?
Julie: As a very young artist I was very influenced by the writings of Simone de Beauvoir but as art history did not foreground the work of many women artists it was hard to think at the time of women artists who might influence my work. This ‘lack’ therefore influenced my decision to make art as I felt there was so much missing from that history that could represent female sensibilities. Locally I looked at the work of artist Janet Dawson, not so much as an influence on my practice but as a local example of a successful and committed practitioner. My role models otherwise have been many artists, both male and female, whose practices I find inspirational, adventurous and challenging; whose work expands our understanding of the world.

How do you think the creative landscape has changed for women over the past century?
Julie: I think it has changed enormously but these changes have been turbulent; meaning that often when gains appear to be made they seem to dissolve or even breed reactive or revisionary positions. In my own field of visual arts there are many more women now whose practices have visibility within the art scene but it is well proven that there are still roadblocks. Most women artists I know are more financially insecure in terms of sales of their work and representation in major museums.

Based on your experiences, what advice would you give to women considering pursuing a career in the creative sector?
Julie: The creative sector can provide many opportunities broadly speaking but to pursue a career within a field like visual arts is very challenging as ‘culture’ is not that well supported in this country. Artists have one of the lowest incomes from their work compared to any other sector, so you need to be very committed and passionate to follow your desires to work in this area. However, it is immensely rewarding at the same time. My advice would be to follow your passions and not be too overwhelmed by the difficulties.

If you could put on a parade for International Women’s Day, who would you put on the main float?
Julie: All my women artist friends!