The Imagined Link Between Masculinity and Creativity

New research suggests men are perceived to be more innovative than women.
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New research suggests men are perceived to be more innovative than women.
(Photo: Pressmaster/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Pressmaster/Shutterstock)

Last week, Vanity Fair unveiled a striking portrait of the new generation of late-night television hosts, a handsome group that varies in terms of age and race, but, as many critics pointed out, not gender. Also, American Theatre magazine came out with its annual list of the 20 most-produced playwrights, which includes four—count 'em, four—women.

Those are just the two most recent reminders that women remain woefully underrepresented in a wide range of creative professions. Newly published research suggests this imbalance can be traced to our reflexive tendency to link masculinity and creativity—a bias so strong it can lead people to judge the same work as more creative if they believe it was produced by a man.

"A 'masculinized' orientation, focused on exerting independence and distinctiveness closely resembles popular understandings of creativity."

"The propensity to think creatively tends to be associated with independence and self-direction—qualities generally ascribed to men," Duke University researchers led by Devon Proudfoot argue in the journal Psychological Science. As a result, they write, "men are often perceived to be more creative than women."

Proudfoot and colleagues Aaron Kay and Christy Koval describe five studies that provide evidence of this bias, as well as the gender inequality it helps perpetuate. One featured 169 Americans (36 percent female) who were recruited online.

Participants were randomly assigned to read background information about either an architect or a fashion designer. This person was given a male name for half the participants, and a female name for the rest.

"Participants were then instructed to examine the target's work, which was identical in the two gender conditions," the researchers write. "In the architecture condition, participants saw three images of houses. In the fashion-design condition, participants saw three images of designs from the 2013 Pratt Fashion Show."

They then rated the creator's creativity, originality, and outside-the-box thinking. "As predicted, the male architect was evaluated as more creative than the female architect," the researchers report.

This gender bias was not found in the fashion-design evaluations. Apparently it's easier to accept the idea of a woman making creative breakthroughs in the field of fashion, as opposed to the male-dominated world of architecture.

Another study examined online reactions to TED talks. Viewers of these short lectures on TED.com are given a list of words, including "beautiful" and "confusing," and asked to indicate which of them best describe what they just heard. (They can choose up to three.)

The researchers aggregated data on the 100 most-viewed talks, 18 of which were given by women, and noted how many viewers described them using the term that most directly suggests creativity: "Ingenious." Researchers found the percentage of viewers who agreed with that description was significantly higher for talks given by male speakers.

Yet another study looked at evaluations of 134 MBA students who were working as senior-level executives while they were earning their degree. These men and women were evaluated by two groups of people: their supervisors, and the underlings who reported directly to them.

Everyone who filled out the evaluations was asked whether the executive "thinks about things in innovative ways." This ability was judged on a scale of one (never) to six (almost always).

"When evaluated by their supervisors, the female executives were judged as less innovative in their thinking than their male counterparts," the researchers report. "However, no gender difference emerged in the direct-report ratings. This suggests that the difference in supervisors' ratings is explained by perceived, rather than actual, differences in the targets' creative thinking." In other words, bias.

This apparent assumption that men are inherently more creative will surprise guys who were made fun of for taking dance or art class in high school rather than going out for sports. Creativity didn't seem all that masculine then.

But Proudfoot and her colleagues argue that, in the popular understanding, "a 'masculinized' orientation, focused on exerting independence and distinctiveness ... closely resembles popular understandings of creativity."

In other words, we view men as more assertive and more autonomous than women, and this leads many to see them as more innovative.

The researchers note that this bias doesn't only harm women in the arts; it may "also help explain the dearth of women reaching the upper echelons of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields." The increasing awareness that creativity is required for top performance in those professions—and the belief that men are more likely to possess it—may give men an edge when it comes to hiring and promotions.

Perhaps it's time for a campaign that points out the accomplishments of creative women in a wide variety of fields, and helps debunk the notion that they are, by nature, less innovative than men. I have no doubt that something eye-catching and effective could be created by a team of imaginative women.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.

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