New research suggests there are gender differences in creativity, but not all of them favor men.
By Tom Jacobs
(Photo: Jean-Pierre Clatot/AFP/Getty Images)
Traditionally, the vast majority of artists, inventors, and other creative people have been men. No doubt societal structures restricting opportunities played a big role in this, as did the popular prejudices they created. A study released last year found men’s achievements tend to be evaluated as more creative than similar works by women.
But what if there really is a gender difference related to creativity? Several studies have been published in recent years suggesting creativity levels vary far more dramatically among men than among women. That would imply creative geniuses are more likely to be men — but so are people with no creativity at all.
A new study from Poland provides fresh evidence supporting that thesis, while adding a significant caveat. It finds that, while men are more likely to be on the high or low extreme when it comes to innovation, the same is true for women when it comes to a different — and undervalued — component of creativity: adaptiveness.
The results suggest men are more likely to produce radical breakthroughs, but women are more likely to be highly creative in a different but equally important realm. As one writer puts it, “adaptive creativity is incremental in nature and tends to work within existing structures or processes. Adaptive creativity is focused on process improvement or unique strategies to carry out a routine objective.”
In the journal Thinking Skills and Creativity, a research team led by Maciej Karwowski describes two studies. The first was a longitudinal study of more than 300 youngsters, ages four to seven. Four times over the period of two years, their creativity was measured using the Test for Creative Thinking-Drawing Production.
Women are better at creatively building upon an existing structure, while men are better at striking out in bold, original ways.
“Participants are asked to complete an unfinished drawing,” the researchers explain, “and the total score is based on 14 detailed criteria that are related to the complexity of the whole work.” Those elements include “boundary breaking,” “unconventional manipulation of the test material,” and “surrealistic or abstract elements.”
The researchers found levels of creativity varied far more among boys than girls. Indeed, the difference was “very large, with boys having twice higher variance than girls,” they write.
This large gender difference at an early age “may be perceived as an argument for a biological basis of this effect,” they note. “Yet all such claims should be formed cautiously. Even among four-year-old children, the difference may, and likely do, have their sources in social factors.”
The second study featured a large sample of Polish citizens (3,594 in total) ranging in age from six to 46. They also completed the drawing-completion test, but, in compiling their scores, the researchers differentiated between different aspects of creativity.
They found males had higher overall scores for originality, and a larger amount of variance. But the same was true of females when the researchers evaluated adaptiveness, which in this case meant continuing, completing, or somehow working off of an already-existing element of the drawing.
The implication is that women are better at creatively building upon an existing structure, while men are better at striking out in bold, original ways.
The researchers caution that, although both of their studies “were based on large samples, strong designs, and advanced analysis methods,” they are limited to one specific test of creativity. Follow-up studies using different measures of creativity are clearly needed.
If their results are confirmed, they suggest we make a big deal about the aspects of creativity where men tend to shine, and undervalue those where women make the bigger contribution. Perhaps the way we conceive of creativity could benefit from some outside-the-box thinking.