When you think of the word "creativity," do you associate it primarily with women or with men? Do you shout out "Sistine Chapel" or "quilts"? Do you point toward the flash card showing a lone man with a light bulb over his head, or do you choose the one depicting a group of laughing women gathered at a table? Do you see a woman writing a book, a man designing a suit, a woman discovering a new galaxy, or a man dancing?
This seems like an old-fashioned question, doesn't it? What do creativity, innovation and originality have to do with gender, anyway? Surely these are gifts and, as such, are distributed equally across the gender spectrum. Haven't we shed the straitjackets of conventional masculinity and femininity and arrived at a point where we can say with confidence and perhaps even in unison, "Women and men have equal access to positions of leadership where their visionary abilities to solve problems and draw on unique perspectives are commensurately acknowledged and rewarded."
Want to guess what comes up when I Google "Woman discovers"? It's not "new galaxy." It's "a body in her trunk" or "the unthinkable in her attic." According to my computer search, other big discoveries by women include "her co-worker is her birth mom," "a Renaissance painting in her kitchen," and "her new home was once a meth lab." Hey, at least that one contains the word "lab."
So, yes, significant and unnerving distinctions persist about how women and men are assessed in terms of creativity and leadership. And just like a corpse in the car, they are hard to ignore.
A few weeks ago, Forbes Magazine posed the provocative question, "Who are the most creative and successful business minds of today?" and answered it by providing the names of 99 absolutely swell, if unprovocative, guys such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. In their great and unmatched wisdom, Forbes placed one woman on the list, at No. 75. Maybe they figured it'd be good to provide a small dose of womanhood, if only as an inoculation — like medicinally administering a little bit of measles in a shot so you don't contract the whole disease.
But their choice to anoint that particular woman tickled me pink. She is the CEO of Ross Stores, Barbara Rentler. As a frequent shopper at Ross Dress for Less, I was delighted to learn that every dime I've spent buying rayon socks at America's largest off-price retail chain helped researchers, writers and editors at Forbes understand that women can be leaders too. By including one on their list, I'm sure they believed they could obliterate the anachronistic, galling and ridiculous idea that only men can be visionary corporate luminaries.
Actually, it took them about 15 minutes after publication to notice that women business leaders were, with new vigor, starting to attack glass ceilings the way zombies attack screen doors. When actual cracks started to appear and a few Forbes interns started to disappear, Forbes issued a public statement that was the publishing version of "It's not you, it's us."
Forbes explained that perhaps they'd need to have what the Brits call "a little think" about how they might possibly, sometime in the future, bring their own greatest minds together and update the definitions of "creative" and "successful" so as not to imply "testosterone-driven."
My colleague and friend Sally Reis, the Letitia Neag Morgan chairwoman in educational psychology at the University of Connecticut, brought the Forbes list to my attention when we were discussing her latest research on creative women. Sally's focus is on "eminent women and their perceptions of their creativity, their creative processes, and the obstacles they face in pursuit of their creative work." My bet is the section on "obstacles" will need subheadings indexed through levels of severity and then cross-indexed with the finely calibrated "Can-you-believe-this-still-happens?" quotient. Interviewing women around the country, Reis wants to understand what "drives the ambitions of creative women, reduce the barriers they encounter, and celebrate their gifts and talents."
Women, as well as men, need to identify, claim, and be rewarded for our ingenuity, our generative and our unprecedented achievements. Gender disparities simply make life more difficult. When my editor was searching for images to illustrate the online version of this piece, for instance, he found that one stock agency offers 125,685 images of "innovative men" compared with 72,784 images of "innovative women." And in every image of a woman, she was wearing an outfit from Ross Dress for Less.
Gina Barreca is a board of trustees distinguished professor of English literature at the University of Connecticut and the author of 10 books. She can be reached at ginabarreca.com.