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INSPIRED DEBATE: Are women better able to express their creativity in the modern age?

In the post-feminist age of ladettes and girl power, are women now more free to think innovatively and express their creativity, or are they still constrained by old stereotypes? More than 130 years after Mary Ann Evans felt she had to use the male pseudonym George Eliot to publish ‘Middlemarch’, many believe women’s potential for creativity is finally being unleashed. But an alternative view suggests that today’s upfront women may really be following an agenda set by men. In the second of our series on creativity and original thinking, two experts debate the issues

YES

Absolutely. Life is so much easier for creative women today. It may still be a male-dominated world, but there isn’t the gender gap there used to be. For instance, in the 17th century women couldn’t play their own sex on stage, use their own names if they wanted their writing to be taken seriously, or do anything remotely creative and remain respectable. Women can express their creative abilities so much more now. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there.

I know a lot of highly creative women, and not just in the arts. Women are often very practical, sometimes more so than men, and they’re very good at multi-tasking and getting things done. They are just as good at inventing things as the opposite sex. The drive to do things differently and innovatively, is there in both sexes, but women express themselves differently; they tend to be more concerned with fulfilling their responsibilities to others than asserting their own rights. We are taught to be nice, nurturing, accommodating and not aggressive. Men keep things to themselves, but women want to share their ideas and get other people’s views. Perhaps they need their confidence boosting a bit more than men. But they’re more open about accepting support and saying thanks.

I got involved with business innovation a few years ago when I came up with an idea for a new product. While researching how to bring the idea to market, I met a host of creative people and it went from there.

Five years ago I started ideas21, a network of creatives and inventors, that helps women and men to realise their creative potential in terms of inventions and innovations. We hold meetings once a month where people, such as Sir Alan Sugar and Sebastian Conran, come and give talks on their own experiences as creative people.

Lots of women get involved but it became apparent that they often couldn’t attend an evening meeting because of domestic commitments. So we started Women Invention and Innovation sessions in 2004. The Patent Office lends us space during the day and once a month we provide free 30-minute advice sessions, timed to fit in with the school run, covering everything from intellectual property, to design, licensing and marketing.

The women are so committed. All 27 slots are usually taken and in a year we’ve had, at the most, three no-shows. Women may still need a bit more support to fulfil their potential, but they are thoroughly appreciative of a man’s point of view. There are already some great women inventors – and there will be more. The world is much more accepting, encouraging and respectful of women’s creativity than in the past.

Linda Oakley runs ideas21, a network for inventors and innovators. She is chair of the Women Invention and Innovation initiative and has been a judge in the British Female Inventor of the Year award

NO

Not necessarily. Over the past 20 years, the way women have been portrayed by the media has taken a bit of a rollercoaster ride, and women’s creative potential has not always done well out of it. In some ways, women are expected to behave more like men and women’s creative imaginations may be suffering as a result.

I got interested in gender issues in the creative process after looking at “the new man”, advertising and the commercial culture of the 1980s. Something happened with men in the late Eighties. They opened up to style in a big way. They adopted a consumerist lifestyle that had previously been the preserve of women; one of fashion, grooming and looks. The new man was well dressed, sensitive and caring.

You could see it in the men’s lifestyle magazines that sprang up. It was as if British men had at last been invited to join an American and European model, the fashion-conscious male with a hint of homosexuality. But that’s changing. Now the new man is being replaced by “the new lad” – a generation of men who are style conscious, say they like stereos and gadgets, but also make it plain they like women.

Women have followed a different route. In the Eighties, after feminism, you weren’t supposed to regard women as eye candy. The new laddism has brought sex back onto the agenda, although in an ironic and knowing way, and women can find it amusing as well. You can see it in ads, such as the Lynx ad, which both men and women can find sexy and funny. Young women today are appropriating elements of masculinity: they drink a lot, dress in men’s clothes, go around in groups, and are very upfront – they’re ladettes.

In 2003, I made a study of the advertising industry, to see who was making the decisions. The results were fascinating. Creatively, it’s a maledominated world. Almost all advertising creatives are men, and the culture is surprisingly bloke-ish. Yes, a few of the most famous ads of the Eighties and Nineties have been made by women, but on the whole, they are thought up by men who live up to the new lad stereotype: they wear goatee beards, play computer games, drink a lot and ride Harley Davidsons.

What does that say about women’s creativity in general? And where are the female designers in industry or manufacturing? Creativity can mean all kinds of different things – entrepreneurial skills and business, as much as painting a picture. But I have a feeling that when they’re not behaving like men, women are still sometimes being shunted into the female stereotypes. Social and cultural change takes a long time – I think there is still a long way to go.

THE STATS

73%

Percentage of girls aged 14 to 15 who say they are interested in a creative or artistic career. (Source: ‘Employers, Young People and Gender Segregation [England] 2005’, Equal Opportunities Commission)

55%

Percentage of boys in the same age group interested in a creative career. (Source: as above)

1 IN 5

Approximate number of female creative art directors in British advertising – 18 per cent. (Source: Institute of Practitioners in Advertising census, 2004)

THE RESULT FROM LAST MONTH’S DEBATE

Is there still a future for invention and inspiration?

90% YES

10% NO

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