The Creative Bias

The perception that women are less creative than men may be hurting their professional advancement and depriving businesses of great ideas


Some would argue that men by nature are more adventurous and therefore more likely to strike out in bold and original ways. Others see something more sinister – deeply entrenched social and cultural attitudes that stifle the female creative impulse. While this nature vs. nurture debate continues, one thing becomes glaringly clear: women are perceived as being less creative, even by other women. This has been proven by a series of research studies. It means that in the highly competitive workplace, many creative women will not get the recognition they deserve. And their male colleagues will have an unfair advantage. The fact is, most of us have subconscious biases when it comes to gender. A long history of patriarchal attitudes has meant that women have to deal not only with overt sexism but also its more subtle manifestations. All this has led to a lack of creative confidence among women.

Research led by psychologist Devon Proudfoot offers some insights into the topic. It reveals that men benefit from a bias because people tend to link creative thinking with stereotypical masculine traits. These include risk-taking, adventurousness, decisiveness, competiveness and independence. Female creative work is thus less likely to receive the same recognition as similar work produced by men. Stereotypical feminine qualities such as understanding, cooperation and sensitivity were not strongly associated with creativity.

One of the studies by Proudfoot and her colleagues sought to test how the work of an architect would be judged on the basis of gender. Some participants were told that the professional was a man and others were told that it was a woman. After viewing images of the houses designed, they rated the “male” architect as more creative than the “female” architect though their creations were identical! Likewise, the researchers found that TED talks delivered by men were more likely to be described as “ingenious.”

Another study examined how senior male and female executives in an MBA programme would be evaluated on their innovative thinking. Once again, bias was evident. The evaluations of supervisors tended to favour the male executives. However, ratings of their direct reports saw the male and female executives as similarly innovative in their thinking.

This suggests that even relatively intelligent people in positions of power are not immune to stereotyping. The researchers also showed how male and female managers are perceived as creative on the basis of risk-taking. Participants in a study saw the male manager who adopted a risky strategic plan as more creative than his female counterpart who did the same. This essentially means that bold men are seen as more creative than women who are as daring.

Such biases cannot be dismissed lightly. After all, they may affect how men and women are recognized and rewarded in the workplace. As Proudfoot has said, “In suggesting that women are less likely than men to have their creative thinking recognized, our research not only points to a unique reason why women may be passed over for corporate leadership positions, but also suggests why women remain largely absent from elite circles within creative industries.”

Today, creativity is in great demand in the workplace. In fact, a survey of 1500 CEOs identified creativity as the most important skill for the future. Stifling the progress of professional women because of our biases is not only unfair but also has negative economic effects. By downplaying their creative ideas, companies only stand to lose out. Since there is evidence of bias, businesses need to be aware of this fact when evaluating the creative output of their female employees. Otherwise, a lot of good ideas risk being lost to them, their industries and society in general.

Women are now responsible for an ever increasing share of inventions and innovations. In fact, they were listed as inventors in over 30% of international patent filings last year. This is a notable increase from the 23% achieved a decade earlier and the 1995 figure of just 17%. Women’s progress in this area certainly bodes well for innovation in the global economy. The gender gap however remains, and there’s still some way to go before women achieve their full potential.

Nevertheless, this is remarkable considering the fact that not so long ago, few believed women were good at inventing things. Life for women in fields like literature may have been better, but let’s not forget that even in the 19th century, a great writer such as Mary Anne Evans felt she had to use the male pen name of George Eliot to ensure that her works would be taken seriously. Women’s creative output would be much richer if they weren’t saddled with so many domestic responsibilities. A lot of men ambitiously pursue their careers without sharing household chores and enabling their partners to succeed. This, along with bias in the workplace, results in an immense loss to society.

There are those who argue that male creative dominance is innate – in other words, it is rooted in our biology. According to some researchers, there is evidence of greater creative potential in men. Others have found a dramatic creative variance among them, with some being extremely creative and others not creative at all. By contrast, the variation among women is less. This means that women in general fall in and around the middle range. It is theorized that the men at the very high end of the creative spectrum are those that tend to make radical breakthroughs and dominate the highest echelons of their fields. Could this explain why the towering creative figures are all men? In literature, for example, we have Shakespeare, Dickens and Tolstoy; in painting, we have Da Vinci and Picasso; and in music, Mozart and Beethoven. Coming to more modern times, the greatest filmmakers are also men, from Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray to Hitchcock and Spielberg. A question worth asking is, “Why are there so few women of such standing?”

We don’t know for sure, but a complex mix of biological and cultural factors may be at play. Further, the overwhelming historical dominance of men could be influencing (or rather distorting) our perceptions of creativity. The issue is open for debate and controversy. Perhaps future research will shed more light on it.

There is, however, little doubt about the gender bias in creativity. It is something that has been observed in workplaces and confirmed through a series of studies. With leading business executives citing creative thinking as the most valued ability in employees, such biases could affect women’s professional advancement. Their work will be unfairly judged as less creative, innovative or original than that of men. And as a result, they will be less likely to be recognized and rewarded.

By undervaluing women, companies will miss out on some great ideas. Things will only change when we make a conscious effort to overturn our flawed perceptions and see things more realistically. We can start by questioning stereotypes. The world’s full innovative and creative potential can only be realized when there is total gender equality. So let’s celebrate the achievements of women, for, as author Diane Mariechild says, “A woman is the full circle. Within her is the power to create, nurture and transform.”



Sanora Rodrigo is an art director and designer based in Colombo. She recently started the local chapter of Ladies, Wine & Design – a global initiative launched by American creative icon Jessica Walsh to foster female creativity. In an interview with Echelon, Sanora spoke about various issues faced by creative women, and what can be done to overcome them.

The number of female creative directors in Sri Lanka and around the world is quite low. What could be the reason for this? Is there something in culture or society that stifles creative leadership in women?
Cultural and social attitudes definitely play a large role. However, I also think that the creative industry’s methods of operating contribute to the lack of female leaders. The pressure to fit into a certain ‘work culture’ with high competiveness, long working hours and unreasonable deadlines can be quite daunting for creative women who prefer a healthier work-life balance.

Are sexist and patriarchal attitudes in the workplace holding women back and lowering their creative confidence?
These attitudes affect women in general and are not limited to the creative industry. Paula Scher – a globally renowned graphic designer – said she had observed women languishing in junior design positions for too long. She believed this may be due to them not being assertive enough in promoting their ideas and work, or not being appreciated even when they did. A woman’s creative confidence may also be adversely affected by biased performance reviews, where women are judged more harshly and get less constructively critical feedback than men. According to the Harvard Business Review, studies show that women were 1.4 times more likely to receive critical subjective feedback (as opposed to either positive feedback or critical objective feedback). Women are not often given due credit for their work. I know of instances where the team leader was a woman and was introduced as such at a meeting, but all questions were addressed to the men in the team. Also, though creatives in general are underpaid for their work, women tend to earn less than their male counterparts.

In your experience, what is the best way to overcome such issues and succeed?
Be vocal and demand your worth. Find a support system of people who are willing to actively help you achieve your goals. They could include family, friends and colleagues. I have been fortunate to have had great female and male supporters throughout my career. They helped me build my creative confidence through mentoring and reinforcing my sense of worth.

Sanora Rodrigo, an art director and designer based in Colombo, recently started the local chapter of Ladies, Wine & Design, a global initiative to foster female creativity

You initiated the Colombo chapter of Ladies, Wine & Design. Please explain the rationale behind it and what you hope to achieve?
Ladies, Wine & Design was founded by the renowned art director Jessica Walsh to foster female creativity. She personally faced criticism for her work, and surprisingly the majority of the negative comments were from women. She launched this initiative to create a support system where women empower each other with the motto, ‘Collaboration over Competition.’

Ladies, Wine & Design was initiated in Colombo with the aim of building a strong community of women across all creative industries. Through mentorship programmes, forums and portfolio reviews, we will guide female creatives to achieve their true potential.

Although the global movement was initiated primarily for women in the graphics/advertising sector, the local chapter welcomes women across the creative spectrum, including fashion, interior design and architecture. The objective is to enhance collaboration between these sectors.

We are networked with other chapters around the world through social media platforms like Instagram. We hope to leverage this to achieve global recognition for creative women in Sri Lanka by offering them a platform to showcase their work.

Do you believe that things are changing fast, and soon women will achieve equality with men at the top?
Yes. With social media platforms and initiatives such as Ladies, Wine & Design and the 3 Percent Movement, we see a profound change in the creative industry globally. Women everywhere are gaining more self-confidence and becoming more vocal about their rights. They are gaining the support of both men and women in the industry to make things better.