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Guilt and women in the arts

I coach both women and men working in the arts or in the creative industries (to speak in broader terms). They both face common issues, but I can't stop but noticing how there's an issue that my female clients bring up which doesn't always feature with their male counterparts: the issue of guilt.

I decided to research this a bit further, and started to connect this issue with the lack of representation of women in the arts. And so I decided to speak to that in this weekly's newsletter.

Why have we not begun to see a more equal ratio of successful and eminent women to men in creative fields? Where are the publicly and professionally successful women visual artists, musicians, mathematicians, scientists, composers, film directors, playwrights, and architects?

As I researched, I wanted to enquire whether this difference was caused by social, cultural and economic discrimination, or whether the gender inequity could be attributed to psychological and biological differences. Fifty years ago, some commonly held beliefs were that women were unable to think abstractly, or women were not ambitious, and this might account for their lack of eminence and follow through in creative fields.

Not much has changed, perhaps, for even today, it seems that the main creative fields where women are equally as well known as men are creative writing and acting, and even in acting, older female actors often complain to me that there are few roles for them.

As we explore personal narratives in coaching, I notice that the problem for girls seems to rise after adolescence, where for boys it arises during adolescence or after college. It is somehow more acceptable for girls to be highly able creatively in high school. Girls' problems may come when they try to reconcile the stereotypical paradox of the nurturing, recessive, motherly female with that of the unconventional artist.

What Loeb called the " If I haven't dusted the furniture and made the beds do I have the right to begin carving?" syndrome afflicts women. The profession of artist demands an extraordinary commitment in terms of willingness to take rejection, to live in poverty, and to be field independent. Those are traits of committed males, but not of committed females, who usually choose careers as art educators, but not as artists.

Using the California Psychological Inventory, profiles of both male and female art students reported that they were not interested in making a good impression on other people. But the need to be accepted, approved and liked can be a great issue for women, and can indeed stop them from exposing themselves and taking risks.

In a study conducted by Barron in California, art students were asked the question: Do you think of yourself as an artist? 67% of the women said no and 60% of the men said yes.

When asked the question: is your work particularly unique or good? 40% of the men and 17% of the women answered yes.

And when asked " In comparison to the work of others, is your work inferior?" the percentages were reversed: 40% of the women felt their work was inferior and 14% of the men agreed.

This reveals a difference in self-image in the women, and these differences are not indications of the real quality of the men's and women's art work. The main difference comes in the intensity of the commitment of the artists to their work. Almost all of the men said their art work was their life, was necessary for life, and was their main reason for living: "Without painting I couldn't function."

Only one woman indicated that her work was essential, and the others made comments such as this: "It's half my life, the other half is my family."

The men viewed their work with passion, the women with detachment. But when asked whether they would still paint if they had no results or success, only half the men said they would continue to paint, but all of the women did.

Women's search for connectedness dominates their development to the detriment of their drive to succeed in their chosen field of creative endeavor.

When women must decide how they will manage being mothers, wives, and creators the double bind hits hard, and this gender difference cuts across all fields and domains. The men creators never seem to wonder how they will manage raising a family and having a career. The women creators always do.

It cannot be said that women artists' commitment and motivation to becoming artists is any less than men's; rather, it appears to be more a difference in the timing of the commitment.

When I ask women clients: What does it mean to you to be an artist?

They say: Almost everything! I mean it is me, it's who I actually am. I don't just make art. I am it. I live it out . . . I mean my whole life.

When I compare this with mothers who are in other professions, the conflicts are a little different. While the artist mothers wished that they had time to paint, the mothers in other professions wished they had more time with their families. The artist mothers tend to have more flexible schedules, so the conflict comes from having to cope every day with allocating time for each role.

And the inevitable guilt emerging from prioritising art, and themselves over others. That is the shift we often must work towards in coaching.


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