Gender Bias in Whether Others See You as Creative?

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By Jeff King, Ed.D., Executive Director of the Center for Excellence in Transformative Teaching and Learning, University of Central Oklahoma

Some fascinating research out of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University indicates that people tend to rate men as being more creative in most situations: “Our research clearly showed that people associate creativity with ‘agentic’ masculine qualities—boldness, risk taking, independence. And because of this, people believe that men are generally more creative than women,” says Duke PhD candidate Devon Proudfoot in describing the research she and two other Duke researchers recently conducted (as quoted by Adams, 2015).

Proudfoot, Kay, and Koval (2015) set up a series of experiments to determine if there is a gender bias in attributing creativity, and for the most part, there is. They did find, though, that the bias — at least in the experiment they conducted — was not present when judging the work of a fashion designer.

Briefly, the researchers had people rate the creativity involved in creating architecture and fashion design. If raters believed the architect were male, they rated the architectural design as more creative, but the bias disappeared in fashion design.

Mostly, however, people tended to ascribe creativity more frequently to men than to women, though “design” was also the contrary finding in the TED talk experiment, a particularly fascinating experiment in which viewers rated the creativity possessed by various TED presenters.

With the TED talk research, Proudfoot, Kay, & Koval (2015) provided TED talk viewers with a list of 14 adjectives, asking the viewers to pick three to apply to each presentation. The researchers chose from among the 100 most viewed TED talks as the presentations shown.

The adjective, “ingenious,” was the one most highly associated with creativity on the list of 14. That adjective was most frequently applied to male TED talkers.

But perhaps it was because more men than women gave TED presentations on topics of creativity or which displayed creativity, you might say. The researchers controlled for this, and once again, men were said to be more creative — except for parity in one subject: design.

What’s up with that?

Why would the bias towards seeing men as more creative fail to show up when it comes to design or fashion design? One possible explanation is that people may believe that women are just as likely to possess the kind of creative thinking needed to excel in design. In fact, perhaps it is the way that we define creativity in a particular domain that determines whether we’re likely to be biased towards one gender or the other. Proudfoot and colleagues found that people’s general beliefs about what it takes to “think creatively” show substantial overlap with traits we more closely associate with men, such as competitiveness, self-reliance, and risk-taking. (Grewal, 2015)

This idea of how creativity is defined bears some investigation. One can rig the game, of course, by defining a thing in terms that clearly communicate a stereotypical trait. Ask most Americans to associate the word, “bravery,” for instance, to a man or a woman, and our cultural biases will probably prompt most people to associate bravery with men.

Such biases exist in other ways. Culturally, “architect” usually prompts a mental image of a man more frequently than a woman just as “engineer” or “pipe fitter” would, yet certainly there are female engineers and pipe fitters. “Soldier” is a highly stereotyped image, too, in spite of the Department of Defense’s recent decision to allow women into all combat roles.

But our conversations about creativity need to be gender-neutral for a slew of reasons.

As the researchers conducting the experiments described above point out, it’s important that we work to become aware of biases and stereotypes as the first step in eliminating them:

As our economy becomes more and more based on innovation, this bias is going to matter more and more,” Kay said. “If we think creative behavior is more desirable, then it’s even more important to be aware of stereotypes about creativity. (Aaron Kay as quoted by Phillips & Medlyn, 2015)

Works Cited

Adams, K. (2015, December). Even women think men are more creative. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved December 9, 2015, from https://hbr.org/2015/12/even-women-think-men-are-more-creative

Grewal, D. (2015, December 8). The creativity bias against women: Research shows that females are perceived as less ‘creative’ in many contexts. Scientific American. Retrieved December 9, 2015, from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-creativity-bias-against-women/?WT.mc_id=SA_MB_20151209

Phillips, G., & Medlyn, E. (2015, October 12). New research: Men perceived as more creative. Duke Magazine: Fuqua Edition. Retrieved December 9, 2015, from http://www.fuqua.duke.edu/news_events/news-releases/aaron-kay-creativity/#.VmjLJdFIiY0

Proudfoot, D., Kay, A. C., & Koval, C. Z. (2015). A gender bias in the attribution of creativity: Archival and experimental evidence for the perceived association between masculinity and creative thinking. Psychological Science, 1-11. DOI:10.1177/0956797615598739.

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