Rebuttal: On Gender Bias and Creativity

Posted by: Claire Komacek

The following is in rebuttal to the post ‘Are men more likely to be seen as ‘creative thinkers’?

A recent study by Duke University found that the ability to think creatively is associated with stereotypically masculine characteristics, and that men are more highly valued for their creative achievements than women, ultimately impacting women’s advancement in the art world.1 The results of this research study speak to how indoctrinated the male-centric ideologies of creative genius are within art history that continue to infiltrate the art world today.

The link between masculinity and creativity is long and well established throughout history, from the very profession of artist that was historically denied to women, to other creative concepts of God as supreme (male) creator, or men as creators of culture as opposed to women as creators of new life. Historically in western society, the creative arts reflected a hierarchy of gender in which art was seen as not only a masculine activity, but a masculine prerogative.2 This is perhaps most explicitly stated in the ‘paintbrush as phallus’ metaphor. ‘The figure of the masculine artist who expresses phallic mastery in the act of painting is one of the founding metaphors which informs modern western art.’3 Yet biological metaphors as such ‘exclude women from the creative process, and in our patriarchal society, woman’s creativity is marginalized.’4

The study ‘found that outside-the-box creativity, or divergent thinking, is more strongly associated with stereotypically masculine characteristics, such as daring and self-reliance, than with stereotypically feminine characteristics, such as cooperativeness and supportiveness.’5 A closer examination of ‘outside-the-box’ suggests the possibility that this term inherently possesses stereotypically masculine characteristics. To think outside-the-box is to be ‘decisive, daring, and risk-taking.’6 How can one’s thinking be both divergent and cooperative? Categorizing creativity in this manner potentially lends the study toward an initial bias. More importantly, the attribution of stereotypically masculine characteristics to outside-the-box creativity does not automatically attribute this creativity to men, and certainly does exclude it from women.

The study went on to say ‘that a man is ascribed more creativity than a woman when they produce identical output, and that men’s ideas are evaluated as more ingenious than women’s ideas.’7 Obviously in our patriarchal society, the favoring of men’s creativity (men’s everything, for that matter) comes as no surprise. ‘Discrimination against women artists infiltrates all aspects of the art world including gallery representation, auction price differentials, press coverage, and inclusion in permanent-collection displays and solo-exhibition programs.’8

In response to the ingeniousness of creative ideas based on gender, this undoubtedly reflects the work of Giorgio Vasari, who is often called the ‘father of art history’ for his book Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects in which he recorded the biographies of many Italian Renaissance artists. This work ‘prefigures out modern conception of artistic creativity’9 for Vasari is credited with the invention of (male) artistic genius. ‘Our present criteria for artistic excellence have their origins in theories that specifically and explicitly denied women genius. We still associate the great artist with certain (male) personality-types, certain (male) social roles, and certain kinds of (male) energies. And, since getting one’s creative output to be taken seriously involves (in part) becoming accepted as a serious artist, the consequences of this bias towards male creators are profound.’10

The study also found that ‘stereotypically masculine behavior enhances a man’s perceived creativity, whereas identical behavior does not enhance a woman’s perceived creativity, and that this boost is mediated by attributions of agency, not competence.’11 While Vasari did mention a handful of women artists in his Lives, he always ‘stressed the women’s feminine characteristics over artistic ability and talent.’12 Given the attribution and accreditation of men with artistic creativity, it could be inferred that for Vasari to highlight a woman’s artistic genius would be to depict her as unacceptably masculine. In today’s society, we have very similar assumptions of women’s behavior. Stereotypically masculine behavior in a woman often earns her the title of bitch, and society perceives her as ‘overstepping her bounds’ or as ‘coming off too strong.’ ‘A strong, aggressive female who isn’t afraid to speak her mind, suffers no fools, and takes no nonsense’13 isn’t someone our patriarchal society typically values or is accustomed to, and this continues to be the struggle for many women artists today. When women are confident in their artwork and project agency in themselves as artists, women are seen as over-confident or prideful because society still sees stereotypically masculine characteristics in women as unacceptable. When women act on their innate outside-the-box creativity, they don’t receive the recognition they deserve because society still operates within ‘an ideology that associates cultural achievement with the activities of males.’14 

‘Once aware of her position in relation to male creativity, woman is left with two possibilities: the first of distinguishing herself within the creative hierarchy historically defined by men, or the second of autonomously recovering her own creativity, nourished by her awareness of past oppression.’15

Ultimately, creative ability does not originate from one’s gender. Creativity is either a tapped into or untapped potential within all of us as human beings, perhaps most simply expressed by the creative instincts of children. The supposed influence of gender on creative ability is culturally constructed and reinforced. Women possess ability for artistic genius equal to men, but their work continues to be judged against the ‘ideal’ of male gendered artistic representation. Artistic creativity is not a ‘male prerogative,’ but our prerogative as human beings.


1. Association for Psychological Science, ‘Men More Likely to be Seen as ‘Creative Thinkers,’ ScienceDaily, published September 28th, 2015, accessed October 28th, 2015,
2. Woods-Marsden, Joanna, Renaissance Self-Portraiture: The Visual Construction of Identity and the Social Status of the Artist, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998: 187-188.
3. Betterton, Rosemary, An Intimate Distance: Women, Artists, and The Body, New York: Routledge, 1996: 80.
4. Friedman, Susan Stanford, ‘Creativity and the Childbirth Metaphor: Gender Differences in Literary Discourse,’ Feminist Studies, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Spring 1987): 50.
5. Proudfoot, Devon, Aaron C. Kay, and Christy Z. Koval, ‘A Gender Bias in the Attribution of Creativity,’ Psychological Science, published September 18th, 2015, accessed October 29th, 2015,
6. Association for Psychological Science, ‘Men More Likely to be Seen as ‘Creative Thinkers.’
7. Proudfoot, ‘A Gender Bias in the Attribution of Creativity.’
8. Reilly, Maura, ‘Taking the Measure of Sexism: Facts, Figures, and Fixes,‘ ArtNews, published May 26th, 2015, accessed October 29th, 2015,
9. Edwards, Steve, Art and Its Histories: A Reader, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999: 132.
10. Edwards, Art and Its Histories: 129.
11. Proudfoot, ‘A Gender Bias in the Attribution of Creativity.’
12. Barriault, Anne B., Andrew Ladis, Norman E. Land, and Jeryldene M. Wood, Reading Vasari, Athens: Philip Wilson Publishers and Georgia Museum of Art, 2005: 180.
13. Guerilla Girls, Bitches, Bimbos, and Ballbreakers: The Guerilla Girls Illustrated Guide to Female Stereotypes, New York: Penguin Books, 2003: 25.
14. Edwards, Art and Its Histories: 129.
15. Rivolta Femminile, ‘On Woman’s Refusal to Celebrate Male Creativity,’ Heresies: A Feminist Publication of Art and Politics, Vol. 1, No. 1, (January 1977): 101.

Rebecca Sorrow, Moore College of Art & Design, Illustration Major.

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