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How we might be losing the creative potential of women

Datum:26 januari 2022
Auteur:Marta Wronska
How we might be losing the creative potential of women
How we might be losing the creative potential of women

Think of a creative. What kind of a person do you imagine? Chances are high you thought of someone decisive, risk-taking, and courageous – most probably of a man. No surprise: qualities associated with creativity clash with stereotypically feminine traits, such as caring, kindness, and nurturance. But do men and women really differ in their creativity? And what does it tell us about their true creative potential?

Rejected by eight publishers, a writer finally signs the contract for a novel, although under one condition: the writer’s gender must be concealed. Next thing, the novel makes a staggering success, and the author develops a book series that becomes iconic. Joanne Rowling, whom this story is about, is known to the world as “J. K. Rowling” because the publishers worried that boys wouldn’t read a book written by a woman[1]. Would things turn out differently if Harry Potter’s author was male? We cannot know. Yet, it does seem that women’s ideas receive less praise than men’s. But is there really a difference between men and women in their creative outcomes? And if so, what might be causing it?

To address this question, Snehal Hora with colleagues checked this in 239 published studies on creativity, run by various researchers from different countries (a meta-analysis). Based on these articles, they calculated the overall size of the gender difference in creativity. Specifically, they extracted the work-related creative performance of adult women and men, evaluated in a few different ways: by (a) the participants themselves, (b) their supervisors, (c) their peers, or by (d) independent judges. Creativity was measured either through an evaluation of a person (e.g., “Does the employee come up with creative solutions to problems?”) or through an evaluation of a product created by a participant (e.g., “How original is this product?”). The authors also retrieved the achievement values and social relationships values of the countries in which the data were collected (the GLOBE study; House et al., 2004). Overall, they analyzed the data from almost 80.000 participants. Most of them were employees and 41% were female.

On average, women’s creative performance was rated significantly lower than men’s. How much lower? Generalizing from these results, creativity ratings of more than 50% of women in society would fall somewhere below – ranging from just a little below to drastically below – the average creativity rating of men. This sounds alarming – and it is, yet it resembles the results found in other achievement-oriented domains, such as negotiation outcomes or leader effectiveness.

Interestingly, the scope of this difference depended on who evaluated creativity, in what way, as well as on social environment, culture, and time. The gender gap was stronger when participants rated themselves rather than when others evaluated them, which suggests that women might assess their creative outcomes more strictly than men. Males received higher ratings when the creativity of a person was rated, but not when a creative product was evaluated. Further, the difference emerged when supervisors, but not peers or judges, evaluated creativity. Remarkably, non-business settings, such as classroom or laboratory, revealed no gender gap. On a country level, the gender gap in creativity was larger in cultures that value achievement and smaller in cultures that encourage equality, reward altruism, and support equal power distribution. Finally, the gender gap was smaller in studies published more recently.

The question now is, what could have caused these differences: biased perceptions or the actual ability to think creatively? For now, it seems that the gender gap is more likely to come from biased perceptions and not from an underlying difference in creative ability. When supervisors assessed creativity or when a person was rated, women scored lower. But the difference disappeared when gender was most likely unknown to the evaluators.

But, is it just biased perceptions of creativity? Other important barriers might play a role too. When you’re expected to be kind, caring, and cooperative, it’s hard to take risks, compete, and champion your ideas assertively at the same time. In other words, the gender female role conflicts with stereotypically creative behaviours. And the consequences of this conflict may reach very far: women who violate their prescribed gender role face even stronger discrimination. This, together with lower creative self-confidence and limited support, acts as an almost impassable barrier to women’s creative success. And that’s how we might be losing the creative potential of the female part of our society.

[1] As Rowling personally revealed in an interview for CNN: https://edition.cnn.com/2017/07/10/world/amanpour-j-k-rowling-interview/index.html 

Marta Wronska (m.k.wronska@rug.nl) is a PhD candidate at the Department of Human Resource Management & Organizational Behavior, University of Groningen. Her dissertation is about motivational mechanisms involved in creativity, such as how engaging in creativity influences attentional breadth (broad or narrow lens through which people perceive the world) and how active goals influence creative problem solving through cognitive mechanisms. She creates a knowledge base for effective animal advocates about creative thinking at www.bullshitfreecreativity.com.

References

Hora, S., Badura, K. L., Lemoine, G. J., & Grijalva, E. (2021). A meta-analytic examination of the gender difference in creative performance. Journal of Applied Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000999

House, R. J., Hanges, P. J., Javidan, M., Dorfman, P. W., & Gupta, V. (Eds.). (2004). Culture, leadership, and organizations: The GLOBE study of62 societies. Sage Publications.

[1] As Rowling personally revealed in an interview for CNN: https://edition.cnn.com/2017/07/10/world/amanpour-j-k-rowling-interview/index.html

Tags: Creativity