Women, Creativity, and the Classroom: Data / by kaley eaton

Well, here we are. It is 2016, and 14 of the top US orchestras have programmed zero works by female composers in the 2016-2017 season. The U.S. presidential election has exposed various unsettling realities that women experience on a daily basis, much of which is particularly relatable for women in leadership positions in male-dominated fields.

As a female composer working towards my DMA in composition, after spending years entrenched in feminist liberal arts colleges and female-dominated opera programs, it is easy to get discouraged about the state of women; indeed, recent studies have shown that gender imbalance in favor of men can actually contribute to health problems for women in those fields.But the imbalance in our field need not be permanent.

In 2013, as part of my Master’s thesis, I conducted a study titled "Women, Creativity, and the Classroom" with the goal of highlighting how women versus men are conditioned to experience their creativity in the music classroom. As my study found (and additional research supports), gender imbalance in creative leadership roles is rooted in K-12 classrooms across America.

The lack of women in our music education paradigm is rooted in the lack of presence of women in the actual world of music. The popular new music blog  conducted an informal study of progressive chamber ensembles that focus on performing the work of recent and living composers, calculating the percentages of their season repertoire composed by women:

New Music Box: By the Numbers.

Both interpretations of these pie charts are troubling: that women have written only an average of 16% of all existing new music, or that these ensembles are deliberately selecting such a small percentage of actual existing repertoire.

These numbers reflect the kind of education that girls and women receive in school and higher education: A History of Western Music by Grout and Palisca, the standard music history text used in most institutions, includes only eight mentions of women as composers in its 1136 pages. Consistently, only 15.8% of doctorates awarded in music composition and theory go to women.

Literature Review

Many studies from the past few decades (Auh, 1997; Beegle, 2010; Kiehn, 2003) have examined composition and improvisation in classroom settings and attempted to relate creative aptitude for these activities to specific variables. Kiehn notes, “conflicting results have been reported with no definite pattern in the research in which the investigator examines the relationship between music creativity and various individual difference variables such as gender and academic achievement.” Most researchers acknowledge that earlier creativity studies were heavily biased, as testing methods fell within the traditional music composition paradigm, which is typically favorable towards white, upper-class males (Kiehn, 2003).

Both Kiehn and Auh conducted studies in improvisation and composition to measure creativity numerically, in hopes of relating high creative aptitude to specific variables. Immediately, one must acknowledge the problematic nature of employing numerical scoring towards creative material, as opinions on what constitutes creative choice are inherently subjective. Nonetheless, Kiehn acknowledged significantly higher scores for boys overall, and related this to institutional and testing biases (Kiehn, 2003). In the opinion of the author, more studies should be done to illuminate these institutional biases in order to eliminate them to carve an easier path for girls to succeed creatively. Interestingly, Auh’s study showed creativity to be linked most strongly to informal musical experiences, which was the only variable with any gender variation (girls had less informal musical experience). Scores from the actual data did not indicate a direct relationship between gender and creative aptitude, however (Auh, 1997).

Despite the wealth of research that points to a universal (although with variation) aptitude for creativity among children, there is a gap in research that examines how each gender navigates creativity in differing social circumstances. Gilligan illuminates the fact that pubescent girls deal with dissociation (Gilligan, 1996). Dissociation causes them to question the validity of their experience and enhances hesitation to express their experiences authentically. None of the aforementioned studies accounted for student grouping in relation to gender; as McKeage points out, women and other groups that experience marginalization frequently alter choices when in the presence of a dominant demographic (McKeage, 2004). As such, student grouping and environment should have a significant effect on girls’ belief in their creative aptitude (and thus their creative success), although the topic is under-researched. Beegle’s study didn’t include gender at all as a variable, although in her methods, she acknowledges that most groups were female-dominant or entirely female (Beegle, 2010). Her study examined how groups of fifth grade students developed compositions and improvisations, and discovered that determining roles within both the compositional and performance process was an indicator of success. Within role creation there was initial conflict – one group included a student who usurped a leadership role at the expense of others’ ideas – but out of this conflict, compromise. It is interesting to note that the specific conflicts Beegle studied in this situation were female-female conflicts, as all groups contained significantly more girl than boy students. Further, the students were pre-pubescent (5th grade), meaning awareness of gender roles was likely less pronounced (Gilligan, 1996). This study invites a conversation of what the results of musical role-playing in composition and creativity may have been in situations of differing gender dominance and in later adolescence.

According to Gilligan (1996), “dissociation was a brilliant but costly solution to a difficult psychological problem which girls were facing: how to hold different realities .. simultaneously, how to keep vital parts of themselves both alive and out of relationship” (p. 240). This, obviously, ties directly into a girls’ relationship with purely creative work. Gilligan further notes that “if they speak freely and reveal what they see and hear and know through experience, they are in danger of losing their relationships” (p.240). If we assume the truth of Gilligan’s study, then young girls feel their relationships are at risk when they express their authentic selves, which distances them from the desire to pursue creative and expressive work.

The forces that drive sexism into the classroom and into the lives of young girls are accurately reflected in the world of music, where women play interpretive roles, and in many cases, sexualized roles, where their own identity and agency is second to a higher power. In classical music, we speak of the “hierarchy” which is, in many ways, synonymous with the patriarchy: composer, conductor, performer, and audience. If men nearly always occupy the top two slots, it solidifies an unimaginably thick glass ceiling that we as educators must work tirelessly to break through how we expose our young female students to music and musicians.

Girls and boys express equal aptitude for creativity in the classroom, so why is it that the music industry is such a complicated web of inequality and institutional sexism? At what age are our women placed beneath the glass ceiling? McKeage’s study of gender and participation in high school and college jazz ensembles suggests that the inequality begins to bloom later, as women and men consider career choices (McKeage, 2004). Women are less likely to pursue jazz as a career due to a “snowball effect” of institutional male-domination – women typically choose instruments that are not common to jazz; women feel uncomfortable in male-majority jazz environments; women are less likely to have professional connections and mentorship in jazz; and women are less likely to make time in college schedules to pursue jazz because of these and other obstacles (McKeage 2002, 2004). Much of this has roots in the fact that creative leadership in music – composing, conducting, improvising, band-leading – has been, in the US, traditionally male, with women occupying more interpretive and often sexualized roles (Hisama, 2000; Levande, 2008; Mckeage 2002, 2004).

Levande examined the link between popular music and pornography, and how the capitalist-industrial complex has eliminated much of female creative agency and instead forced talented women into pornographic imagery to serve corporate interests (Levande, 2008). This, according to Levande, has its roots in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which made pornographic imagery “omnipresent” in the media. The music industry suffers from this, according to Levande, because of the “talent to tramp” narrative that characterizes many talented female artists’ career trajectories (Jewel, Pink, Christina Aguilera as some examples; at the time of posting, the author is excited about the shift from sexualized to empowered in these same groups of artists that is happening in 2016). If this is the case – that women and girls feel equally creative to their male counterparts throughout college, but then, due to media influence and institutional barriers, are forced to pursue non-creative routes in their later adolescence and adulthood – then we, as educators, need to do as much as possible to combat the influence of the media and antiquated paradigms while girls are still in school. It is likely that the influence of the media becomes insurmountable in the post-pubescent life of the young girl, as she begins to navigate her identity and sexuality: she sees pornographically portrayed women as powerful and independent (Levande, 2008) and therefore pursues her creative interests with this as the dominant image, effectively compromising her creative agency. This has a negative effect on male creativity as well, as boys and men begin to see girls and women as sexualized, performing objects to be manipulated; their creative energy may be manipulated into domineering roles, and they may, in fact, be discouraged from pursuing careers in performance. The performing, pornographic pop-icon becomes “anti-masculine” and further deepens the gaps between performance, creativity, men, women, talent and leadership.

To attempt to find links between women’s underrepresentation in the music industry and attitudes towards creativity in the classroom, I undertook a variety of methods to collect data: during the initial phase, I administered a detailed survey in which I asked students to rank their feelings towards, enjoyment of, and beliefs about their creative activity. Students had the opportunity to justify their numerical rankings with written responses, which most chose to do – these responses heavily impacted my conclusions, as is described in the analysis section. On the same survey, I also asked these students to list their musical role models. During the second phase, I designed an improvisation activity for 6th grade students, and asked them to write, draw, or somehow represent on paper their experience during the improvisation activity. Following the written activity, each student had the opportunity to share his or her experience with the class. I collected their writings and used their language and drawings supplement my conclusions drawn from survey data. Finally, I analyzed my experiences as an artist, female, and teacher, and additional experiences of my female composing peers to further qualify and understand my findings.

I chose to collect this data with two 6th grade drumming classes, two 9th and 10th grade choir classes, and two 9th and 10th grade harmony classes at an urban charter school serving grades 6-12 in a major west coast city. The 6th grade classes included 9 boys and 6 girls; the 9th and 10th grade classes included 30 girls and 17 boys. The school is incredibly racially and socioeconomically diverse, with almost equal representation of Asian (predominantly Korean), Latino/a, African American, and Caucasian students. Because it is a charter school, students come from an array of different neighborhoods from across the local metropolitan area, meaning some have excessively long commutes and others live within blocks. The school is located in a crime-ridden neighborhood with a heavy gang presence – many of the students are facing recruitment at a variety of levels, and the school’s building is often tagged. As such, safety is a major concern throughout the school day. 30% of high school students surveyed have an Individual Education Plan (IEP), meaning that 30% of these students have a diagnosed learning or developmental disability. None of the students are classified English Learners.

All of these classes are taught by the same teacher, who is a strikingly enthusiastic, expressive, compassionate, and driven woman, who expressed to me on numerous occasions a desire to teach progressive musical ideas, with a heavy emphasis on female leadership. The teacher’s expertise is in choral education, with a background in woodwind and choral performance. Students in these classes have almost no background in music aside from their exposure to popular music from the media and Internet; a select few have experience playing instruments and studying music privately.

This school was the site of my student teaching for the final quarter of my master’s degree, and I was present for the quarter during the surveyed 6th grade and 9th and 10th grade classes. I began this study at the beginning of my teaching, and therefore did not have established personal relationships with the students during the initial period of data collection. This was purposeful – during the initial periods, I wanted to explore the students’ attitudes towards creativity without my influence as an outspoken composer and female creative leader. To my knowledge, the classes were not aware of my creative discipline during this phase. During the second phase, the 6th grade drumming students were well acquainted with my personality and expertise, although the topic was seldom addressed in the highly active and performance-oriented class.

My findings indicated a variety of stunning results related to girls’ and boys’ differing feelings, enjoyment, and beliefs as they relate to musical creativity, and I believe these students, with their impressive diversity, comprised an excellent sample of typical American youth. 


Who am I: Calculating boys’ and girls’ self-conception

At what point do girls and women feel most discouraged in their creativity? Studies consistently show that girls in school have no distinguishable difference in creative aptitude than boys (Auh, 1997; Beegle, 2010). My own data shows a decline in creative confidence from childhood to adulthood; women that do pursue creative careers beyond the college level show remarkable resilience. In examining my findings at the 6th grade level, the 9th and 10th grade level, and the adult level, one can sense the intricacies of the artistic patriarchy that slowly wear away at our creative women and men throughout their lives. Through student narratives, surveys, and class experiences with students, I was able to discern that female and male music students have drastically different experiences when it comes to comfort and ease in creative activities, enjoyment of creative activities, and confidence in their creative ability. These three themes intertwine throughout the data and reveal that girls experience complex creative obstacles that boys do not.

Several interesting trends emerge when comparing survey results from the same survey given 6th, 9th and 10th graders at the same school. Overall, high school students – both male and female – show tempered attitudes toward creative activity over time, answering in higher neutral percentages in high school than middle school in all categories. Where 6th graders were resolute in their identities – “I am good at this,” or “I love doing this,” – high school students showed more tempered responses across the board.  High school girls appear to have waned in their comfort with creativity since middle school, answering with lower numbers on questions 2 and 3; however, their enjoyment of these activities appears to have increased (questions 4 and 5) as well as their confidence in their leadership abilities (question 6). Written responses to all of these questions show a high level of insecurity in girls’ individuality, and a strong awareness of group dynamics, at all score levels. Boys, on the other hand, show opposite trends in every area: question 2 suggests a decreased confidence in risk-taking, but question 3 shows an overall increased confidence in the uniqueness of their ideas. Boys show a decreased enjoyment of all artistic activities, and a marked decrease in belief in their own leadership abilities. Questions phrased with the words “I believe I .. “ and “I enjoy” showed the most drastic changes with age, and also the largest gender discrepancies. Questions phrased with “I feel” showed the most consistency with gender and age.

“I feel”: Questions 1 and 2

Questions phrased with “I feel” on the survey were designed to access student’s feelings of comfort and ease in creative situations. While comfort is easily tied to creative confidence, it is distinct, in that many students can “feel comfortable” participating in activity while simultaneously believing they are not typically successful or creative.

Question 1: I feel comfortable expressing myself in this classroom setting


9th/10th GRADE

Overall, students in all grades and genders answered affirmatively to the first question – I feel comfortable expressing myself in this classroom setting. 100% of 6th grade girls answered with a 4 or a 5, and 100% of 6th grade boys answered with a 3, 4, or 5. In high school, however, small percentages of each gender answered with 1s and 2s, and a noticeable portion answered with 3. This question displayed little gender disparity, perhaps as a result of their teacher’s emphasis on positive and open dialogue at all times.

Question 2: I feel comfortable taking risks in improvisation and composition activities.

 6th GRADE

9th/10th GRADE

Question 2 – I feel comfortable taking risks in improvisation and composition activities – received an ambiguous response from 6th grade girls, who answered mostly with 3 (neutral), several 2s and several 5s. When asked to explain their answer choice, all of the girls who answered with 2 or 3 indicated a fear of making a mistake, being laughed at, or cited their lack of experience with music. Their responses showed high social awareness – “my peers will think,” “they will laugh,” etc. High school girls show a waning confidence in their comfort level with creativity, with less than 10% of students surveyed answering with a 5, and increased numbers answering with 1s an 2s. High school girls were quick to acknowledge “right” and “wrong” ways to compose or improvise, and most of them – even those that answered with 4 and 5 – indicated that mistakes were a major component of the activity: those that answered 4 and 5 had justifications like “I might mess up but I know it’s ok,” and those that answered low answered saying, “I make too many mistakes.” This is upsetting, in that there is technically no such possibility as a mistake in improvisation and composition – these activities have no predetermined desired outcome. The girls were fabricating the idea of the “mistake” all on their own and allowing it to inform their comfort level. Many girls of all scoring levels indicated they were low in self-esteem and therefore did not feel comfortable taking risks.

6th grade boys, however, answered with only 4s and 5s – showing strong confidence in risk-taking. In contrast to the girls’ highly social responses, boys – even those without previous musical experience – explained that improvising and risk-taking was enjoyable regardless of circumstance, and not a single boy used any vocabulary relating to social circumstance or the opinion of their peers. High school boys, who answered numerically similar to 6th grade boys but with a higher concentration of neutral answers, had simple and positive justifications for their scores. Low scores simply had justifications such as “I am not comfortable” and high scores typically indicated enjoyment – “It’s fun” – and many indicated confidence in skill – “it’s fun because I am good at it.” In contrast to the girls, not a single survey from a high school boy used the word “mistake” or any of its synonyms – it was as if there was no concept of making mistakes in the high school male mind. One survey did say rather poignantly, “no risk and no consequence to improvisation,” which is, essentially, true. Somehow, high school boys have developed in a way that allows them to approach creative activity fearlessly, as opposed to their female peers, who – even those who exhibit enthusiasm for creativity – are clearly concerned with “mistakes,” “messing up,” and doing it “wrong.” This attitude is the most troubling of all findings, and demonstrates a massive inequality that is a major root for how our industry currently functions.

“I believe” – Questions 3 and 6

            Questions phrased using “I believe” were designed to access students’ levels of self-esteem and self-confidence in their creative ability. Self-esteem and self-confidence are not accurate predictors of actual talent and creativity in either men and women from childhood to adulthood, with men typically showing inflated confidence and women showing low self-esteem (Sandberg, 2013; Shipman, 2014). My findings support that; these questions showed great gender and age disparity, clearly signaling the internal battles that both girls and boys feel as they try to make sense of their creative selves during adolescence.

Question 3: I believe I have unique ideas, compared to my peers, when I improvise and compose.



9th/10th GRADE



Question 3 – I believe I have unique ideas, compared to my peers, when I improvise and compose - showed another side of girls’ complex relationship with creativity. 50% of 6th grade girls answered with 4 or 5, and the other 50% answered with 1 or 2. High school girls, however, were evenly spread, with almost 60% answering with a 2, 3, or 4. Of the 6th grade girls, those that answered with higher numbers were confident in their ability to create interesting and new ideas, citing their unique personalities as a catalyst (“I do my own thing in my life, so I have creative ideas”). This represents a conscious rejection of the expectations of peers, perhaps, ironically, in the name of winning their approval – as adolescent girls create their identities, the desire for attention and approval from peers can drive them to rebellion, whether positive or negative. Those that answered on the low end of the spectrum were decidedly resolute – “I am not a creative person.” In examining the discrepancies between answers it is clear that the word “unique” activated a contemplation of identity, rather than ability – which is perhaps why girls answered so extreme. Indeed, creativity and identity are inexorably linked, which is why the navigation of both underneath the ceiling of the patriarchy is universally problematic for artistic women. 

            An interesting trend emerged among high school girls, who showed great neutrality with this question. Only 15% of respondents responded with either a 5 or a 1, showing tempered attitudes towards their capacity for unique ideas. When examining their rationales for their scores, however, one can see the continuing thread of the 6th grade girls’ desire to orient themselves in relation to others. Girls who answered on the high end of the spectrum with 4s and 5s tempered their high score, with nearly all of them justifying with a statement such as “everyone has their own unique identity.” Other high score responses included justifications such as “my ideas are unique but I don’t share them.” Such responses indicate a lack of ownership of creative identity in favor of perpetuating a positive group dynamic, which could stem from the collective fear of being a “diva” that we enforce in our girls (Shipman, 2014). Girls who answered on the low end of the spectrum showed a similar social awareness, qualifying their scores with phrases such as “I might get rejected” or “my ideas are the same as my peers.” Many lower scores simply received a justification of, “I’m not very good with music”; and, perhaps the most discouraging of all, a low score accompanied by “I could be good if I tried.”

6th grade boys answered this question primarily with 3, and almost every answer could be reduced to, “I don’t think I’m that unique.” This, perhaps, is yet another response to society’s pressure that polarizes girls – girls must either be entirely submissive or unique and creative to circumvent expectations and thereby achieve approval; and boys do not have to navigate these particular expectations. They face the pressure of being masculine, quiet, and “in control,” a struggle in which uniqueness can feel somewhat irrelevant. Judging from their responses, these boys, in particular, do not value the opinion of their peers as sensitively as their female classmates, and perhaps this influences their (lack of) desire to be unique.

High school boys answered nearly opposite than 6th grade boys, with the lowest percentage of high school boys answering with a 3 and the highest percentage of 6th grade boys answering with a 3. High school boys show increased confidence with nearly 50% answering with a 4 or a 5, versus the 6th graders 30%. High school boys were predictable in their justifications, with many of them not offering any written response at all; those that did write about their chosen scores simply said, “I am unique,” and some coded the word “unique” with a different connotation, saying “I have weird thoughts.” Many that answered low offered no written justification. The overriding sensibility for high school boys is positive yet somewhat indifferent, which is consistent with the desired male personality of this age – quiet and in control.


Question 6: I believe I have leadership skills in music.

6th grade


 9th/10th GRADE



This question showed not only the greatest gender disparity in both ages, but also the greatest change from 6th grade to high school. With genders answering in nearly opposite percentages in all grades, it appears that 6th grade boys are confident in their leadership where girls are not, and high school girls are confident in their leadership where boys are not. Interestingly, this disparity might reflect the gender dynamics of the particular classes that took these surveys: the 6th grade music classes are heavily male dominated, and the high school classes are heavily female dominated. Further, the 6th grade music classes focus on drumming which, in our culture, students typically associate with male leadership; the high school classes focus on chorus and singing, which students typically associate with female leadership (Conway, 2000). Comments that students left on surveys, however, display the same trends that the other questions indicate – where boys viewed leadership as an expression of individual power, girls viewed leadership as a construction primarily in place to help others. Boys and girls placed themselves in these roles respectively. Where boys showed growing polarized attitudes with age towards musical leadership, girls showed more neutrality, being careful not to justify their high scores with self-praise but rather with acknowledgement of group needs.

Overall, girls seem to display increased confidence in leadership, with 50% of 6th graders answering on the low end of the spectrum decreasing to nearly 20% of high school students answering on the low end of the spectrum. Where no 6th grade girls answered neutrally, about one third of high school students answered with a 3; girls answering in the upper half remained somewhat consistent, with a small increase in high school girls responding with 4 or 5. Those that cited strong or neutral attitudes towards leadership skills in both 6th grade and high school (answering 3, 4, or 5) were unanimous in their view of leadership as a role that is in place to help others, rationalizing their scores with statements such as “I work well with groups,” “students tend to ask me for help,” “I want to encourage others,” and“I’m not the best but I want to help.” Responses such as this reflect the need of girls from all ages to divert positive attention away from them and attributed it to outside forces, which is a well-studied pattern amongst women in the workforce (Sandberg, 2013; Shipman, 2014). Interestingly, for high school girls, the written rationale for respondents who answered with a 3 was almost the same in tone as those who answered 4 or 5 – attributing any inclination towards leadership to factors outside their own skill. 6th grade girls who answered in the high end of the spectrum also indicated an awareness of their musical talent – “I’m good with music” – where high school girls did not. 6th grade girls who answered on the low end of the spectrum cited practical reasons, with little mention of identity, such as “I don’t know how to play any instruments.” High school girl comments reflected the same situation but with much more identity-focused, emotional wording – “I’m not good with music,” “I’m terrible at leading,” “I’m bad at music.” Though the numbers suggest an increased confidence, the statements suggest an increased dependence on group dynamics and more self-blame and self-criticism. With numbers and written responses considered together, one can see waning clarity in the ways that girls view their creative leadership skills, which ultimately inhibits them in the post-school workforce.

            Boys showed waning confidence in their responses to this question as well, but also illuminated their conception of leadership as fundamentally different from the girls’ conception: leadership was a mark of success, of individual power and talent – not a role primarily concerned with helping others. Their comments may not represent their actual beliefs about leadership, but juxtaposed with the girls, may in fact illuminate girls’ relative unwillingness to admit to positive attributes. Despite their low scores, boys were much more straightforward in their responses, and did not justify their scores (low or high) with external reasoning. 6th grade boy comments, like 6th grade girl comments, showed practicality in their approach to leadership: those than answered low said they had “just started” or “didn’t play an instrument” and those that answered highly said “I play in a band” or “I’ve lead musical groups before.” High school boys were more emotional in their responses than 6th grade boys, which is also reflected in the drastic change in numbers in this age; however, their justifications stayed in the realm of the individual rather than citing group dynamics. High school boys that answered on the low end – a shocking 40% answered with 1, versus 0% of 6th graders who said 1 – cited individual deficiencies, saying “I’m not comfortable” or simply, “I am not a leader at all.” High school boys that answered in the high end were equally emotional, saying variations “I love music” and “music is my strength.” This is important to contrast with the high school girls’ answers – boys felt that their passion and their strength was enough to qualify them as a leader, whereas girls unanimously cited nomination from their peers as the primary reason for pursuing leadership. This represents the central problem that girls feel when they are tossed into the “real” artistic world: to be a true creative individual, you must operate on your passion and strength. Without utmost confidence in this area, one simply cannot compete with male peers who have had the opportunity to develop this resilience. Women who are successful creative leaders typically show enormous strength and resilience as individuals regardless of a group, and it is unfortunate that this is not the norm.

“I enjoy”: Questions 4 and 5

For adolescents, admitting enjoyment of an activity can have huge consequences. Adolescent hobbies and passions often hold career potential and are therefore an instrument with which many young people define their identities. With others to impress and social groups on the line, admitting to enjoy something that others do not enjoy can invite social alienation. As such, this type of terminology – “I enjoy X” – invites an exploration of what students believe to be socially acceptable among their peer groups. Further, answers to this question often illuminate whether or not students have the opportunity to enjoy certain activities.

Question 4: I enjoy improvising and composing.

 6th GRADE


9th/10th GRADE


Girls appear to have an increased enjoyment of improvising and composing as they get older, with 40% of 1 and 2 responses changing to only 20% in the high school sample. A plurality of high school girls answered with a 3, and their written responses indicate a battle between aligning enjoyment with self-esteem. This attitude seems to stem from the need to appear humble and modest towards one’s skill, an affect that characterizes high school girls’ attitudes in many of the other questions. Where low-responding 6th grade girls simply wrote, “I am not good at this” or “I am not creative,” high school girls wrote “I’m not good and what I do turns out bad,” and “I like composing but not improvising.” Interestingly, high school girls that responded neutrally indicated that they did enjoy the activity, but they lacked skill – hence their neutral numerical score choice: “It’s fun, but I’m not very good at it.” High school girls that responded with 4s and 5s were enthusiastic, saying, “I love it” and “it’s the highlight of my day.” As with most of the data, this question indicates a strong link, increasing with age, between creativity and self-perception in girls.

            Like girls, boys do appear to have more neutralized feelings with increasing age; but because of the high level of enjoyment exhibited by 6th graders, this indicates a lapse in enjoyment in high school students. 70% of 6th grade boys answered with a 4 or a 5, justifying with written responses such as “it’s fun” and “I do it a lot” – whereas only 35% of high school boys answered with a 4 and 5. High school boys’ written responses were nearly identical to the 6th graders, saying simply “it’s fun” and “I am good at it.” Interestingly, unlike boys, girls did not qualify their enjoyment of the activity with skill. Where boys were quick to acknowledge that their skill enhanced their enjoyment of the activity girls were not; similarly, where girls were quick to indicate that their lack of skill decreased their enjoyment of the activity, no boys indicated lack of skill as a reason for not enjoying creative activity. Boys in both 6th grade and high school that answered with low scores said that creative activity “requires too much effort” or “isn’t fun.” Compared to girls, boys did not justify their numerical scores with as many written responses – where girls felt the need to justify and explain high scoring, boys simply left the responses blank.            

 Question 5: I enjoy performing

 6th GRADE


9th/10th GRADE



For the students in this particular study, performance opportunities are more abundant than composition activities for all ages and genders, and therefore performance received predictably high ratings from all groups. Consistent with the rest of the data, both girls and boys showed greater neutrality in high school than in 6th grade towards performance activity, with nearly half of 6th grade boys responding with a 5, and less than 30% of high school boys responding with a 5. Girls showed less change from 6th grade to high school, with 40-50% of each age group responding with a 4 or a 5. However, comparing all respondents illuminates that gender disparity in attitudes towards performing is greater in 6th graders, who have noticeably fewer performance opportunities. I would conclude that the more neutralized and nearly identical attitudes of high school girls and boys towards performing stems from the fact that they are experienced performers, and have more life experience to support more nuanced and complex opinions about performing. 6th graders, however, view performing as something less accessible and more exotic, and therefore display more idealized and exaggerated opinions about how their identity fits in with a performance dynamic. This conclusion can be drawn not only from their numbered responses, but also from their rationale, in which 6th graders cited their personality and dreams as justification for their score (“I’m not that kind of person” or “I want to be famous”), and high school students cited real-life experience (“I enjoy choir concerts” or “I perform in community theatre”).

            Overall, these responses illuminate the central problems that divide our genders from childhood throughout adulthood: society places more pressure on women to be a certain “way,” whatever that “way” may be. In 6th grade, girls begin to display awareness of society’s pressures: that in order to succeed, they must fit someone else’s definition of whom they are. Because creativity and identity are intricately intertwined, this inhibits the development of their creative life. Boys, however, respond to different pressures, and display less fear of failure. The pressures of masculinity that so shape their adolescent life predispose them to risk-taking, in order to be accepted by male peers. Creativity is simply another form of risk-taking, and the likelihood that boys will face societal rejection upon taking creative risks is much smaller.


What can I do: Narrating the experience

            The 6th graders in my drumming class are collectively fearless, open, creative, and critical. In this class, we focus on ensemble drumming, with a heavy emphasis on improvisation. A typical class period consists of warm-ups in which I “ask a question” on the drum and each student will answer with an improvised, two-beat pattern. After rehearsing composed ensemble pieces, we will often create a group improvisation, with the following process: I will create a 4-beat bass pattern; the students will listen, and when someone has an idea, they will raise their hand and I will invite them join in; with each new rhythm created, the ensemble will “gel” for a few cycles until the next drummer is invited in. Once everyone is playing, we will play for several minutes, and the improvisation is complete.

            Following one such improvisation that was particularly musical and symbiotic, I engaged the students in a writing activity with the prompt, “What was going on in your mind during the improvisation?” I asked them to express their answer in any way – a narrative, a poem, a drawing. When I went through their writings, I was astounded at the level of maturity, artistry and self- and group-awareness that these students exhibited. There were, however, palpable differences in each gender’s improvisation experiences. Not one boy included any word, drawing, or indication that he was concerned of other’s opinions during the improvisation, whereas each girl expressed some level of self-consciousness in front of their peers. Overall, the girls made more creative choices with their writing responses – more girls than boys drew pictures, and more girls than boys opted to write in a poetic, abstract, and descriptive style.  This indicates that, perhaps, girls have a stronger inclination towards expression and creativity, but are more self-critical in their actualization of this impulse. My findings with older age groups indicate that this self-criticism increases with age, concurrent with girls’ and women’s growing awareness of the patriarchy. True to my findings, research shows that this self-criticism is rooted in our misogynistic musical culture (Levande, 2008).

To encapsulate the experience of this improvisation from the lens of each gender, I opted to select quotes from each student’s writing and arrange a poem based on these quotes. The girls’ poem indicates a strong sense of community and dependence on others, as well as a high level of self-criticism; the boys’ poem indicates self-confidence, a more individualized experience, and very little self-criticism.




My mind was all over the place.

They might think I’m crazy.

I felt like my mind was an unknown puzzle trying to find the right pieces, the pieces were my peers, community.

What would work with the other person?

I was thinking about sounds that would sound really good or bad.

What I did sounded bad.

I felt like we were a community.

I was nervous that if I messed up maybe some people would laugh at me.

We are a community.

With each beat came harmony.

The rhythm didn’t come as planned, so I thought of something else.

I had nothing to be afraid of.

I stare at the window as I drum my new idea and try to tune in.

I am listening with the beats on my hand, their beats on my ears, and the drum in my heart.




My mind was blank.

In my own world with my own beat yet fully aware of the beats around me.

At first I didn’t know what to do but then I got into rhythm, it was really easy for me. I think I am nervous because it’s out of my comfort zone and I don’t really do music.

When I put my hand on a drum I can feel it lingering through my fingers.

I felt very musical and a little offbeat.

When we started the first improv I didn’t have a clue what to do. When we did the second I had a better idea.

A certain rush comes through me that I can’t explain, it feels like I could do anything I put my mind to.



Who will I be: Musical role models

          Our society has a history of portraying the sexualized woman as the height of creative power. This is a one-sided view of creative power – not every woman will find her sexuality as her most powerful point - and considering the other forces young girls must battle, not sufficient in growing a new generation of powerful female artists. In the classical music world, one sees a similar narrative – women who show exceptional talent are often pushed to pursue careers in performance, which are problematically severed from composing and leadership roles. Women need more options for role models: sexual, non-sexual, performing, creating, leading. Currently – as the data shows – where young men have a diverse and rich buffet of successful men after which to style themselves, young women have a smattering of sexual icons, plus the same male role models of their male peers, to idolize.

            When I researched this same group of students’ musical role models, the results were harrowing. Of the 6th grade girls, only the 6 girls surveyed mentioned 5 artists, zero of which were female. 50% of the 6th grade girls indicated they had no musical role models. The 9 6th grade boys, however, mentioned 22 artists, zero of which were female – but only 13% said they had no role model. Comparing this data to the survey data, in which 6th grade girls answered with lower scores for each question across the board, there seems to be a clear correlation at this age between available role models and feeling creative.

            The data from the high school sample further supports this, and as the sample size was larger, the results are consistent but more nuanced. 30 high school girls mentioned 46 artists, 20 of which were female. High school girls represented the most diverse stylistic tastes of all samples, with role models ranging from classical, pop, and classic rock to musical theatre. Interestingly, this sample was the only group to mention family members as role models, with 4 of the 30 girls citing relatives as major musical influences. 4 high school girls also mentioned their classroom music teacher – who is a woman - as a musical role model. 26.6% of high school girls had no musical role models – this is down from the 6th grade group, although due to the highly differing sample sizes, the results can be interpreted with similar impact. In stark contrast, the 18 high school boys surveyed mentioned 40 artists, only 1 of which was female. Only 1 high school boy mentioned family as an influence and 1 mentioned the classroom music teacher. Like the 6th graders, high school boys had more role models than high school girls, with only 17.6% reporting no role model.

            The numbers are clear: fewer young women have role models than young men, and importantly, the role models that they do have are not consistently female. One of the most troubling findings, in the opinion of the writer, is the fact that, of all the samples, only the high schools girls mentioned female artists, and even then, at a lower rate than they mentioned male artists. In order for us to claim true equality in the way we educate our young musicians, both boys and girls should be claiming equal numbers of male and female role models.

This brings up a complicated conundrum that our adolescents face: as shown by the diversity of artists represented by the high school girls, and the boys (although their list of artists is less stylistically diverse, it still shows a breadth of taste) it is clear that young people of both genders crave diversity in role models. The few female artists mentioned – and only mentioned by girls - occupied the pop genre. Beyonce was the most frequently mentioned female artist by far, with a few recurring mentions of Lorde. The girls’ list of 46 artists, while showing the most diversity, is still lopsided in its high representation of pop music that is not typically considered highly creative. Luckily, since the time of this study, feminism and feminist subjects have become increasingly mainstream, particularly with the 2016 release of Beyonce's tour-de-force visual album, Lemonade. Beyonce and other female powerhouses such as Taylor Swift have taken ownership of their careers through self-management and control of their own image and message, something that is relatively unprecedented in the world of Western entertainment. I'm optimistic that there is a revolution happening in the entertainment industry, one that provides young women with increasingly diverse arrays of female, male, and non-binary role models. There has also been a consolidation and intermixing of "genre," boosting the creative perception of pop and de-mystifying more experimental genres.

Boys made absolutely no mention of pop artists – male or female - as role models. Classic rock (Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Doors, Beatles, Rolling Stones), 90s rock (Nirvana, Slipknot), and hip hop (Biggie Smalls, Tupac, Kid Cudi, Kanye West) almost exclusively characterized the boys – both 6th grade and high school - tastes. While boys certainly have an array of sexualized male stars to choose from, such as Justin Bieber, One Direction, or Robin Thicke, these artists appeared exclusively on girls’ surveys. Further, many of the artists heavily represented on boys’ surveys often employ lyrics or music videos depicting aggression towards women in varying degrees, whether subtle or overt. As both boys and girls internalize this dynamic, in conjunction with the dissonant levels of creativity represented by male and female artists, it is no surprise that our industry faces such a grave imbalance (Barongan, 1995; Levande, 2008).

Clearly, boys have historically had more role models of their gender than girls that we perceive as highly creative. This is not to say that these artists are in any way more creative than female pop artists in reality – but they are marketed as such, young people build their tastes based on which artists are most representative of their identity. With young boys idolizing artists that are unanimously marketed as highly creative, innovative, and powerful people above all other characteristics, and young girls idolizing female artists that are sex icons and male artists that are considered highly creative, there is little opportunity to deny that the face of our current music industry is pigeonholing students into unfair identity paths.

What Can We Do?

The classical music world – especially the portion that contains new music, in which living composers are the vital presence – is a relatively small portion of society. There are few opportunities to have conversations about gender representation because the majority of white, male composers and conductors in leadership positions have rarely had to battle institutional barriers; thus the conversation of institutional barriers rarely makes the top of the agenda.

Further, in speaking with some of my composing colleagues and collecting survey data from adult, professional female composers and conductors, many women noted hostility between women in our field. Often, this is reported as conflict between women who celebrate their gender as an important factor of their art and women who refrain from explicitly speaking about it. Thus the gender conversation, in gender imbalanced situations, can range from inspiring, to awkward, to, unfortunately, silencing or even harassing, as reported in several surveys. The unpredictability of this kind of conversation based on past experiences, according to these same reports, often prevents women (and men) from bringing it up.

The best way we can improve the situation is to address the problem, and to think critically about the music that we consume, study, perform, and share. Music teachers must work tirelessly to develop their own curriculums that include equal representations of female and male composers and creative role models and refrain from using old textbooks that do not provide accurate representations of women and people of color. This is no easy task, as even the most dedicated of progressive teachers often fail to provide their students with fair numbers. It is, however, feasible. There is enough available published music for school music ensembles to be able to provide close to equal representation of female composers at school concerts.

Where possible, educators can incorporate composition into school curriculum to allow for student compositions to be presented in concert as well. ng students to write letters to publishing companies and arts organizations that fail to provide decent representation of women.


Our music industry, in all its facets – from underground indie rock to classical music to corporate pop – reflects our societal attitude towards women: we are not creative agents, but targets of male visions. This mentality has permeated our school system, where the same dichotomy is enforced in the way that we allow our students to relate to one another socially and in the way that we, as teachers, encourage and reprimand them.

Behaviorally, we expect girls – from kindergarten to high school – to follow rules rather than question them. Every day, the patterns that our girls experience in school are reinforced by the patterns they see in women in the media. As girls age and become more aware of social roles and dynamics, they consequently begin to pigeonhole themselves as appeasers, as helpers, as bystanders. We heap the responsibility of perfect social order in the classroom on our girls rather than expecting equal contribution AND deviation from both genders. Girls of all ages should feel just as comfortable as boys to mess up, to break rules, to be punished – this is how we develop confidence, and this is how we break creative boundaries.

In my data, it became clear that over time, girls associate creativity with deviation from the group, and boys associate creativity with individual success. What seems like a difference in vocabulary is representative of our society’s depressingly imbalanced attitude towards the role of women. What results from this imbalance is exactly what we have now: consistently misunderstood female public figures, and very few women in creative leadership roles. This, in turn, reinforces the vicious cycle: in this world, there are few creative female role models and, most importantly, new, relevant art is not being created to its full capacity.

Can our world progress in equality, in empathy, in opportunity for all, if this is the dominant paradigm? My answer is yes: it is in the hands of artists and educators, who are thankfully and wonderfully radical in what they do, to chip away at this paradigm.

Every initiative made by major arts organizations to combat social problems, be they issues of race, social class, gender, or other imbalances in the arts community, serves to help women and girls rise up. Every resilient and brave woman that applies for professorships, fellowships, and grants inspires a friend, student, or colleague. Every mother that shares what her day at work was like with her daughter creates an inspired young leader. Every woman that makes a record inspires a girl to write her first song. And every vote made towards candidates, initiatives, and policies that address equity helps to create a society where women and men both lead and take creative risks. For these reasons, I am optimistic.





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