Competitive disadvantage for creative women

510px-Defense.gov_photo_essay_080814-A-8804H-006 Every time I hear someone ask how to intrinsically motivate students, I have to laugh inside. The very definition of intrinsic means to come from inside of a person, not from an outside source, such as a teacher, instructor, trainer or anyone else employed in the field of getting people to learn. But maybe I should tell them that they need not worry about intrinsic motivation. Although it is touted as a way to improve learning, when it comes to improving one’s level of recognition in a field – even recognition for creative accomplishments – extrinsic motivation seems to trump strictly internal goals every time.

Consider the root of competitiveness.  People work harder to do something not just to excel in their own sight, but to be recognized by the public as better than someone else.  The Olympic medalist who bemoans winning silver may have spent months of solitary training, but the crushed expression at coming in second reveals the high level of extrinsic motivation involved.

Men seem to compete more readily than women. Evidently the male characteristic of trying harder if someone else is paying attention starts young. It is noticeable early in grade school (Gneezy 2002).  Not only do the males make more effort when competing, they are more willing to take the risks. Why? Because they typically predict that they will perform better than they actually do. (Niederle & Versterlund 2005).

Many societies have placed a premium on competition. Even creative individuals  in the arts and sciences must compete for resources with which to do their work.  These resources have been habitually controlled by men (Simonton 1994). The decision to award these resources in often based on competition, and with creativity of ideas being a particularly subjective judgment, resources are often awarded to the most competitive people.  People who promote themselves as being the best win – not necessarily the people who are the best (Gneezy 2002).

It becomes obvious how this tendency carries over into the creative fields. F. Barron’s (1972) study of young artists at the San Francisco Art Institute and at the Rhode Island School of Design yielded similar observations. When the students were asked if they thought their work was “particularly unique or good40% of the men and 17% of the women agreed. These statistics were basically reversed when he asked the flipped side of this, with 40% of the women and 14% of the men feeling that that their work was inferior to others at the institute. Interestingly, these were not real indications of quality. Overall the woman’s work was as high a quality as the men’s. Barron attributed this disparity to a difference in self image.

However, this self-image may be due to social conditioning, not innate differences between men and women. In the few matrilineal cultures in which women control the resources, they behave in a similar competitive manner to men of other cultures. (Gneezy & List 2013). It has often been noted that women can also be competitive. However, they tend to limit this to competition against other women, which is done in a more covert and less openly aggressive manner. To make an impact on the world with their creativity would require a different style of competitiveness. So what exactly occurs when women try this?

Photo: 2012 London Games. Defense.gov_photo_essay_080814-A-8804H-006.jpg/Public domain.


Barron, F. (1972) Artists in the Making. New York: Seminar Press
Gneezy, U. (2002) Gender and Competition, Do Competitive Environments Favor Men More Than Women? Capital Ideas, Vol. 4 No. 2 | Fall 2002
Gneezy, U. and List, J. (2013) Where Women Are More Competitive Than Men, Time
Niederle M., and Lise Versterlund, L. (2005) “Do Women Shy Away from Competition? Do Men Compete too Much?” NBER Working Paper Series, National Bureau of Economic Research , 1050 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138
Simonton, D. K. (1994). Greatness: Who makes history and why. New York: Guilford Press.
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