More than ever, creativity has become a hot commodity in the workplace. Businesses compete ferociously for new ideas, and Silicon Valley — with its extreme focus on innovation — is the current bright spot of the US economy. Companies need employees who can tackle difficult problems, learn new skills fast, and identify opportunities in unexpected places. Top employers are increasingly looking to hire individuals who excel at creative thinking.
But whether you are seen as creative or not may depend on whether you’re a man or a woman. A recent paper by Devon Proudfoot, Aaron Kay, and Christy Koval at the Fuqua School of Business suggests that in certain contexts, people are more likely to associate creativity with men than with women. If this is true, then women may see their professional opportunities limited in workplaces where creativity is highly prized — and companies may lose out by undervaluing the creative ideas generated by their female employees.
In one study, Proudfoot and colleagues recruited one hundred and sixty-nine online participants to evaluate a fictitious professional who was described as either an architect or a fashion designer. Half the participants were led to believe that the professional was a man while the other half were told that the person was a woman. The study participants then evaluated the professional’s work in the form of three images (houses or fashion designs). The participants then answered questions about how creative they thought the images were. When it came to architecture, the participants rated the images as more creative when they thought the work had been done by a man. With fashion design, there was no difference in the creativity ratings.
The researchers wondered whether this bias in favor of men would show up in a more real-world setting outside the laboratory. To see if this might be the case, they analyzed viewers’ reactions to talks on TED.com. After watching a video, viewers on the site can select up to three adjectives (out of fourteen) to describe their opinions of the talk. Proudfoot and colleagues analyzed the adjectives applied to the one-hundred most viewed online TED talks. The number of viewers for each talk ranged from three million to thirty million views.
The data that the researchers were most interested in was the percentage of viewers that applied the adjective “ingenious” to a talk, since it was the adjective most closely aligned with creativity. Overall, a higher percentage of viewers selected the word “ingenious” to describe the talks that had been given by male speakers. One explanation for these results is that men and women differed in the kinds of topics they spoke about. To examine this possibility, the researchers analyzed the data again within each of TED.com’s six most popular topics: technology, entertainment, design, business, science, and global issues. Looking at the data in this way showed that the bias towards describing men’s talks as “ingenious” remained for all topics except for one: design.
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. Future studies may want to look at whether explicitly defining creativity in terms of more stereotypically feminine traits reduces, or even reverses, the bias towards men.
Clearly, the impact of gender on perceived creativity has potential implications for how women are seen in the workplace. Proudfoot et al. ran a different study that looked at data collected about one-hundred and thirty-four senior-level executives enrolled in an MBA program. As part of the curriculum, each executive was anonymously evaluated by their supervisors and direct reports on several dimensions, including perceived innovativeness. Looking at the evaluations in terms of gender revealed that the female executives were judged by their supervisors as less innovative in their thinking compared to the male executives. There were no differences in the ratings of innovativeness by direct reports. Past research has shown that people in high-power positions are more likely to rely on stereotypes when judging others compared to those in low-power positions. Therefore, it makes sense that supervisors, and not direct reports, showed the bias. If the results from this study can be generalized to other settings, then women may be at an unfair disadvantage in workplaces where people at the top place a high degree of emphasis on creative and innovative thinking.
Although the findings from this research are potentially the most damaging for women, they have important implications for everyone. Most of us would be reluctant to admit any tendency to evaluate a potentially innovative idea as less so simply because it was generated by a woman. However, if we do possess such a bias, it may cause us to overlook an important idea that has the potential to change our lives for the better.