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What art taught me about gender diversity

Can you name five famous female artists? I expect you needed a moment to think about that one. Let’s try this question: can you name ten famous male artists? I suspect that you found this question much easier to answer. Why would you think that is? Are men more creative or more artistic than women?

Gender diversity and art. I never thought when I started The Art of Agile that I would write about this. Even though I had already noticed the signals at the end of 2018, when I organized the event of Agile Experience Event Being Human in times of Agile. Simon Koolwijk and Saskia Ivens organized a workshop together with gender diversity and awareness of it in organizations as topic. It suddenly clicked for that as a man, I am a part of the issue, but I don’t take part in the dialogue. In fact, when you look at the digital work environment where, compared to 20 years ago, more and more women enter the playfield, there is no room for a topic like gender diversity on the work floor. Taboo perhaps? I do not know. However, with a daughter and two daughter-in-laws all aged 28 to 33, I thought it was time for some action, and I decided to organize the event “A course: women at work for men”. During this event we listened to women telling their stories and we discussed themes they mentioned afterwards.

So let’s get back to the arts. Maybe it was because of all the organization and preparation for the event on 2 May, but I began to wonder: what about art? My first – and as it turned out rather lazy – thought was that men and women have just as many opportunities to be recognized as artists. If men gain more recognition than women, then perhaps the difference comes down to talent and perhaps gender. Men’s art has a higher value because it is more appreciated, even by women.

The exhibition at Museum De Fundatie in Zwolle, FREEDOM - THE FIFTY KEY DUTCH ARTWORKS SINCE 1968, a composition of 50 contemporary high-profile Dutch artists, has 12 works of art created by a woman, which means that 25 percent of all art was created by a woman.

The idea that I have – and I dare say, we all have – that women are barely represented roused my curiosity. I began to research the matter more closely, trying to figure out what was going on. I will take you on my quest to some answers and feel free to search along with me and make your own discoveries.

Charley Toorop - Hilma aft Klint - Frida Kahlo

Inquiry 1: My search about gender diversity and art on the internet

This search has led me to many interesting initiatives. A few examples are:

The National Museum of Women in the Arts. Located in the heart of Washington, D.C., the National Museum of Women in the Arts is the only museum in the world dedicated exclusively to recognizing the achievements of women artists.

A lot of attention on Women in Arts is made by TATE Modern in London:

  • With shifting political landscapes and women's marches happening around the world, how are women artists addressing their rights and identities, in their work and beyond? link

  • Guerrilla Girls is an anonymous group of feminist, female artists devoted to fighting sexism and racism within the art world. The group formed in New York City in 1985 with the mission of bringing gender and racial inequality into focus within the greater arts community.

  • Feminism and media how gender stereotypes from the mass media have been confronted and subverted by feminist artists in the past 50 years link

Inquiry 2: list as many names as possible of female visual artists in 1 minute

I am actually not good at this. I am very bad at remembering names. I described what I could remember from the works and produced the following list:

  • Swedish artist with those circles and spirituality and nature (Hilma af Klint)

  • Dutch artist with those eyes and father who was famous, eh, ah! Charley Toorop

  • Japanese artist with the extravagant clothing (Yajoy Kusama)

  • Mexican artist who is divorced from her husband (Frida Kahlo)

  • Visual artist who makes sculptures with round shapes (Barbara Hepworth)

  • Sisters who want to kill each other (sisters Raeven)

Time’s up! .... well, it is not much, but it is still something.

Inquiry 3: my playlist on Spotify

My playlists on Spotify are strongly dominated by English singers and bands. Roughly estimated 1 out of 15 songs is a woman's song. Names of favorite female singers: Nina Simone, Anouk, Amy Winehouse, Lana del Rey, Agnes Obel, Kate Bush, Nora Jones, Macy Gray, Wende, Eefje Visser, Maaike Ouboter.

This is my music. Fourteen out of the fifteen songs are from male singers or bands with men. That could just be my personal preference. To be honest, I prefer De Staat, Blaudzun and Kensington more then Roos Beef, Anouk and Krezip. I'd rather listen to Spinvis than to Wende. And I do go to concerts by The Editors and Arcade Fire. I love Agnes Obel as well, but I only saw her in the support act of David Byrne.


It might be interesting if the two surveys about preferences could be conducted among a large population of men and women. What would be the proportions and differences in proportions of preferences? Is there a correlation with gender and preference? Is there a gender-related preference or is my taste for greater diversity not sufficiently developed? What about that development of preference, and of judgment?

I am, of course, not the first to ask these questions about the under-representation of women in the arts. Linda Nochlin wrote an article in Art News in March 2019:

The question “Why have there been no great women artists?” has led us to the conclusion, so far, that art is not a free, autonomous activity of a super-endowed individual, “influenced” by previous artists, and, more vaguely and superficially, by “social forces,” but rather, that the total situation of art making, both in terms of the development of the art maker and in the nature and quality of the work of art itself, occur in a social situation, are integral elements of this social structure, and are mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions, be they art academies, systems of patronage, mythologies of the divine creator, artist as he-man or social outcast.

The Art of Observing

The breaking down of prejudices starts with observation. Our observations are limited, because judgement colours our perceptions. This has led Amy Herman to do some interesting work in using art to teach people to explore their own prejudices and limited perception. She made a career switch and now teaches at the MOMA museum in New York. Among her students are many police officers, lawyers, judges, doctors and security officers. She has also written the book ‘The Art of Observing’, which we will certainly use when we start observing art later on this year.

Social learning process

You cannot avoid prejudice as it is a consequence of a social learning process that fixes these opinions. Karl Weick did some interesting research about this learning process in organizations. His argument is that collective sense making has a limited selection of perception because of prejudice. Weick also discerns two types of learning: adaptive and reflective. Adaptive learning is the most common type of learning that we also find in improvement processes in organizations. We do not discuss the “what” or the “why”: we only focus on how to improve, if we even focus at that at all. Thijs Homan calls this sense making process a game. Homan: “A characteristic of children is that they are very creative at creating games. They continually change and adapt the rules of the game, even while playing, to keep the game fun and exciting. It is that kind of playing that we call “play”. “Game” is the exact opposite. That is playing a game, but according to rules set and determined beforehand, such as tennis or soccer.”

With permanent adaptation, there is also an issue of not seeing what there truly is to see. Things like stereotyping and filtering out unusable information are useful behaviors that enable us to act quickly and improve continuously. Every reality has information that does not fit the image we already have. Literally, this means it doesn’t make sense. This form of disconfirming information is then treated as indicated by the social psychologist Albert Bandura with his cognitive dissonance theory. Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.

Everyone falls prey to this kind of giving colour to perceptions and limiting those perceptions, and when we look at collaboration, it can be extremely functional. Communication based on this shared perspective – in other words, the sense making – can occur at an incredibly fast pace. When we are together, we no longer need an explanation as a mere gesture of understanding is sufficient. However, what if the minority feels uncomfortable with this repetitive story told about reality? And what if, based on the same factual perception, this minority draws a different conclusion and experiences a different emotion?

Berthe Morisot

Berthe Morisot is a good example of such a woman I discovered on my search. Morisot was the only woman who, together with Godin, Pissaro, Monet and others, belonged to the founders of Impressionism at the end of the nineteenth century. She came from a good family and her father allowed her and her sister to take drawing lessons from a young age. Soon, she felt that drawing and painting was her true destination, and this at a time when young wealthy women were forced to wait at home to be married off by their parents. It’s obvious that everyone knows the names Monet, Pissaro, Manet, Degas and Renoir. But who knows the name Morisot?

A film was made of her life The Rebel is a Heart, This extremely fascinating documentary can be seen on a “uitzending gemist” from a Dutch broadcast by “Uur van de wolf”. The documentary shows how difficult it is to have a talent and a passion as an individual, and to find no support in your environment. It is unclear exactly how great Morisot’s role has been for laying the foundation of Impressionism. The interesting part in relation to observation is that the Impressionists did not use their own imagination or (Biblical) history as their starting point, but rather the day-to-day reality as can be seen in the here and now. In a way, self-portraits from those days are like the selfies of today, and just like her male counterparts, Morisot painted the daily reality as she perceived it.

Berthe Morisot au bouquet de violettes (Manet, 1872)

Berthe Morisot was not only surrounded by male painters, but also by her own family who insisted that she should drop her painting ambitions in exchange for a ‘good marriage’, and suffered greatly from this pressure. All of this changed when Manet, an Impressionist painter who often painted Morisot as a model, came with the proposal to marry his brother. Aware of her doubts about being misunderstood, Manet assures her that his brother will do everything possible to let her continue her painting. The day of proposal, painted by Manet on canvas, has Berthe surrounded by violets. It marks the life of Morisot. They get married, and even though it’s a marriage of convenience, it gives Morisot every chance she needs to continue developing herself. She’s happy together with her husband, and they get a daughter from which Morisot continues to draw inspiration from.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Natalia LL was one of the first artists to step forward and criticise conceptual art for excessive rationalisation and avoidance of physical sensuality. In Consumer Art she also refers to the imagery of popular culture, where consumption and erotic motifs are often paired.

What we can learn from this for our working existence for now is that maybe we should give women who find themselves in similar minority situations the opportunity to develop their talents. If Berthe’s courage is an example for women, then perhaps the Manet brothers can be an example for men:

  • Do not trivialize and ignore seemingly impossible wishes just because ‘it would not be appropriate for a woman’.

  • Offer space and safety to allow talent to grow and mature. After all, nobody gets far without encouragement.

  • Acknowledge that women are different in art (and work) than men. Or rather: we are all different one way or another. If we do not acknowledge these differences, we cannot recognize equality either.

  • Open the way to communities where the passion for your profession is central.

Sequence of judgement

Even when we find a way together – with all of the best intentions – to deal with our gender diversity, it is still important to keep communicating with each other at the workplace. Can art offer any help with this? I think it can. As Amy Herman has already shown, there is still much to learn for everyone in the art of observing. Look at art and see what lies behind the following different layers:

  1. empirical: state what you observe

  2. emotional: what does this do to me/us

  3. opiniating: what do you think about it

In my work I like to guide groups along this sequence of judgment to stand still and give reflective learning a chance. Whenever teams or groups have difficulty with postponing judgement, it often helps to look at art.

A lesson on looking - Amy Herman

In addition to learning how to observe, art can also be helpful in expressing emotions and judgments. This can be done in a passive way by using photos of artworks and then ask the question: which artwork expresses your emotion or your opinion? Another way is by opting for an active work form, in which people express themselves through creating art, such as a drawing or an image.


And what about the oldest art form: storytelling. On 2 May in Utrecht five women told their stories to men (in the foreground) and women (in the background) about experiences on the work floor and what these experiences did to them. The stories were told vividly and the struggles of these women was felt. Their stories - the art they showed - formed the basis for a subsequent dialogue between men and women.

More than ever we need another perspective on our lives and work. We need to pay attention to the talent, passion and drives of ourselves and of our colleagues, both men and women. We are forced to consciously opt for a different gender perspective. I am curious to what the impact would be if we listened more to women's stories, looked more at women's art and listened more to women's music. And if life is art, stand still and listen to each other.

Insight: observing, storytelling and dialogue are useful tools to overcome prejudice

Art helps me in order to find a way to deal with our gender diversity, or with whatever diversity there is. Observing, storytelling and dialogue are useful tools to overcome prejudice. Between men and women, and also in all kind of situations we are dealing with disconfirming information. Last but not least when we are dealing with organisations becoming Agile.


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