Girls and boys are born with equivalent creative potential. But it’s a Man’s World!––women are not supposed to be creative. They just need to “be pretty and smile.” Then, how did Madame Curie become the most creative woman in history?
What is creativity? Creativity is the process to make something unique and useful, and the successful result of this process is innovation. The Nobel Prize is the ultimate symbol for innovative achievements. Even though women constitute for over 50% of the world population, only 5% of all of Nobel Prize winners have been women. Madame Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and is the only woman in history to win it twice.
Before Madame Curie discovered radioactivity for her first Nobel prize in Physics, she obsessively isolated radium by grinding and boiling pitchblende (an ore) for years. This was an exhausting process because it was only possible to extract 0.1 gram of radium per one ton of pitchblende. In a smelly, freezingly cold in winter and suffocatingly hot in summer, leaky, and dusty shack, she made the impossible task possible because of her self-discipline, diligence, resilience, and persistence. However, she would not have won her first Nobel Prize without the unwavering support of her husband, Pierre Curie. In 1903, the Nobel Committee decided to exclude Madame Curie from the nomination because she was a woman. However, Pierre refused to accept the Nobel Prize unless his wife was included as a nominee. Reluctantly, the Committee eventually added Madame Curie’s name.
My research shows that women and men are born with equivalent creative potential. It also shows that both creative underachievers and successful innovators are shaped by their environments. In a patriarchal society –– an anti-creative climate –– women are brainwashed into believing that they are the inferior sex. Women are also not afforded the same resources and expectations as men are. Based on these different expectations, parents raise girls and boys differently. Female innovators, including Nobel Prize winners, are less likely to marry and have fewer children than male innovators (in fact, female innovators are often childless). If female innovators do get married and/or have children, they are expected to bear all of the household responsibilities. Women are expected to take care of others’ needs and play supportive roles to other family members. Societal norms and expectations make developing female innovators feel guilty and selfish for cultivating their own creativity; they are expected to be selfless and develop creativity in others, not for themselves. In the early 1900s, Madame Curie’s situation was anomalous because she received support from Pierre and her father-in-law, who took care the grandchildren.
All innovators credit their success to inspiration and/or support from role models, mentors, and cross-pollinators (formal/informal collaborators, sounding boards, or colleagues who are experts in other subjects). For women, however, there have been only pretty supermodels, instead of inspirational role models, mentors, or cross-pollinators for innovation. Fortunately, Madame Curie had Pierre as a mentor and cross-pollinator, and he had expertise on electric properties of crystals. Pierre had already invented the Curie electrometer with his brother; this device was capable of measuring extremely weak electrical currents. She used the device to discover radioactivity. Pierre facilitated the development of her creativity and promoted her creation so that it became recognized as an innovation by society.
A patrialchal world does not value women’s accomplishments, and sometimes it even deliberately sabotages them. When Madame Curie was 38 years old, Pierre tragically died from falling beneath the wheels of a horse-drawn carriage because his bones had been weak due to overexposure to the radioactive element radium. Four years after his death, she struck up a relationship with Paul Langevin, one of Pierre’s former students who was separated from his wife. Shortly thereafter, when Madame Curie was nominated for her second Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911, French newspapers neither recognized nor celebrated her innovation. Instead, they deliberately discredited her innovation by reporting that she was “a seductive, Jewish home-wrecker” and published photos of Madame Curie that looked like mugshots. (In fact, she was a Polish––not Jewish––immigrant living in France.) The public questioned the Nobel Committee’s decision and pressured her not to attend the award ceremony. However, she stood by the integrity of her innovation and went anyway. She captivated the audience with her genuine award-acceptance speech. This was all made possible because she embodied the 4S (soil, sun, storm, and space) attitudes that all innovators exhibit, which enable ION (inbox, outbox, and newbox) thinking skills. Her 4S attitudes had been nurtured in her 4S climates. She was an empowered woman because of her particularly strong storm attitudes––such as self-efficacy (true self-confidence by knowing her specific strengths), resilience, risk-taking, and persistence––and space attitudes––such as compassion, daydreaming, nonconformity, gender-bias-free, and defiance. In a patriarchal world, men are allowed to take more risks or exhibit greater nonconforming attitudes than women. Women are conditioned to conform to norms and expectations and behave in a certain way–– like being pretty and smiley. But creativity is the opposite of conformity. Innovation is only possible for nonconformists who question existing norms or expectations and challenge the status quo.
Women innovators’ success can be explained using the CATs, which is a research-based comprehensive framework for creativity and innovation. It includes the three steps that can lead to innovation:
First, cultivate the 4S Climates.
Second, nurture the 4S Attitudes.
Third, apply ION Thinking skills.
Climates are similar to the type of environments that make plants grow strong and productive: diverse soil, bright sun, fierce storms, and free space. For creativity to flourish, first, the 4S climates are necessary:
The soil climate provides individuals with diverse resources and experiences, which allows them to find and develop narrow expertise (a thorough mastery of knowledge and skills of a specific subject) within a wide-range of experiences.
The sun climate inspires and encourages them to expand their curiosity for unique ideas.
The storm climate posits high expectations and challenges, which helps them achieve expertise in their subject of Curiosity, Preference, or Interest (CPI) and face the unknown in their creative process.
The space climate gives them the freedom to be alone and unique, which helps them find and use their own uniqueness and develop ideas beyond their expertise and others’ imagination. The 4S attitudes, like those Madame Curie exhibited, are nurtured by these 4S climates.