Melissa J. Williams Ph.D.

Powers That Be

Why Do We Treat Women's Creativity Differently?

A gender bias in beliefs about creativity holds women back at work.

Posted Aug 16, 2019

My grandparents, and maybe yours, too, might have been surprised by the idea of a woman working—much less a woman boss. But both are common now.

Our stereotypes about men and women have changed, too. Unlike in the past, few now doubt a woman’s ability to prepare a spreadsheet, defuse a work conflict, or manage a complex project timeline. At last, it seems, women and men are assumed to be equally competent.

This is great news for working women, who for years have fought to be taken seriously as smart, capable contributors. But not all the news is so positive.

It turns out that gender bias lingers—at the top. Women remain singularly disadvantaged in roles where people expect not just competent execution but tremendous creativity, even genius.

Look at the Nobel Prizes, given each year for world-changing triumphs in science and literature. In the 1900s, the first decade of the prizes, only 5 percent of winners were women. Maybe this isn’t surprising given the very different norms of the time, but what about now? In the current decade, the 2010s, women have leaped all the way up to… 8 percent of prizes. Color me unimpressed.

Similar evidence of stalled progress can be seen in business leadership. Almost half (47 percent) of U.S. workers are women, and 39 percent of U.S. companies are women-owned. That’s a lot. But among the nation’s at the biggest companies, those that have the most influence on people’s lives, the number holds at a paltry 7 percent.

We can attribute this imbalance in part to persistent gender stereotypes that men, more than women, are endowed with brilliance, genius, or the seeds of radical innovation. One analysis found, for example, that letters recommending male and female scientists for jobs were equally likely to refer to the scientists’ ability (using words like intelligent or proficient), but letters about men were significantly more likely to include “standout” terms (exceptional, extraordinary, unmatched). This is despite the fact that the men’s and women’s resumes didn’t actually differ in accomplishments. But wouldn’t you rather hire the exceptional scientist than one who is merely proficient?

This bias may come from an error in how we assume innovation happens. Most people think of brilliant ideas as emerging from the churning brain of a genius who’s been left alone to forge his (yes, his) own path in a tiny attic room, a Silicon Valley garage, or the lab late at night. This tendency to operate as an independent nonconformist, which psychologists call agency, is seen as more characteristic of men than women. Women are assumed to be good at resolving conflicts and maintaining relationships—essential skills for keeping an operation humming—but NOT at the kind of separation from others that’s supposedly essential to brilliance.

In a set of studies looking at perceptions of innovation, novel products like architectural drawings, TED talks, and business strategies all were evaluated as more creative when study participants thought they were evaluating the work of a man. Another project found the same results in the domain of science, with scientific contributions seen as more creative when labeled with a man’s name. These results were driven by participants’ beliefs that creativity requires agency, and being separate from other people.

This view of innovation holds women back.

It’s also wrong.

 Pixabay
The assumption that creative ideas come from lone wolves, instead of from collaborations, masks women's potential as innovators.
Source: Pixabay

Research increasingly confirms that innovation comes from connecting with others, as well as holding oneself apart. It involves drawing new connections between existing ideas, as much as inventing new concepts out of thin air. It comes to teams as often as individuals. And, importantly, there are no clear gender differences in actual creative abilities. But women are more likely to go uncredited and unrewarded for their best ideas.

The responsibility for fixing this bias lies with those who are already at the top—mentors, advocates, evaluators, and investors. One starting point is to be cautious when describing mentees as “creative” or “brilliant,” because of the potential for bias.

Leaders can also ensure that they are incorporating multiple perspectives when sponsoring or recommending others. Female (versus male) executives in a study were rated as less “innovative” by their supervisors—but not by their subordinates, who knew them better. Hearing from those in the know before sitting down to make a phone call on a subordinate’s behalf may yield a recommendation that’s more nuanced and less biased.

It’s also essential that we broaden our own conceptualizations of innovation. Despite stereotypes, it’s not the case that being antisocial, or a jerk, feeds people’s greatest ideas. In practice, we come up with good ideas just as often by strengthening bonds as by breaking them. In other words, changing the world is something we can do together, including the voices of both men and women as we go.

This is an evidence-based blog. Check out the sources below for more information, and to form your own opinion. Sources behind paywalls may be accessible via an Internet search or by directly emailing an author.

LinkedIn Image Credit: ESB Basic/Shutterstock

References

Baer, J., & Kaufman, J. C. (2008). Gender differences in creativity. The Journal of Creative Behavior, 42(2), 75-105.

Eagly, A. H., Nater, C., Miller, D. I., Kaufmann, M., & Sczesny, S. (2019). Gender stereotypes have changed: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of US public opinion polls from 1946 to 2018. American Psychologist.

Schmader, T., Whitehead, J., & Wysocki, V. H. (2007). A linguistic comparison of letters of recommendation for male and female chemistry and biochemistry job applicants. Sex Roles, 57(7-8), 509-514.