Are Men More Creative Than Women?

New research examines whether there exists a gender difference in creativity.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | January 14, 2022

A new study appearing in the Journal of Applied Psychology provides some much-needed perspective on a controversial question in psychological science: is there a gender difference in creative potential and performance? The authors suggest that while men are generally perceived to be more creative than women, this is probably not the case from an empirical standpoint. Furthermore, new studies show that the stereotype that men are more creative is eroding over time and is less pronounced in countries that have more gender equality.

I recently spoke with Snehal Hora, a researcher at the University at Buffalo School of Management, the State University of New York and lead author of the paper, to discuss her findings in more detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of gender differences in creative performance and what did you find?

I have long been fascinated by the complexities of creativity — how creativity is understood so differently in various fields, industries, and jobs; how some people are more inclined to be creative; and, most importantly, how some people are considered to be more creative than others. These intricacies intrigued me and made me a student of creativity.

Additionally, working in diverse roles from engineering to human resources in India, I was captivated by a common observation — women were systematically less involved and underrated in some tasks; specifically, in tasks that required creativity. Interaction with business clients in Germany, the U.K., and the U.S. made me realize that the extent of this gender-creativity phenomenon varied across countries as well.

Puzzled by how individual creative experience and performance were influenced by one's gender, my research interest evolved to focus on gender differences in creativity. From my own experience, I knew that there was a cultural component to these dynamics as well, so our research team started this investigation to pursue answers to the research questions — how and why gender affects creative performance and what might be the contexts (e.g., culture) that affect this association.

We found that men were rated to have higher creative performance than women. As creativity involves a level of risk-taking, challenging the status quo to come up with a unique and novel solution is often done in an independent and assertive manner. The general perception of creativity is that it is a man's job.

As such, despite having equivalent creative abilities as men, when women try and engage in creative behaviors, they are constrained — either due to their own internalized gender roles or due to the backlash they experience from perceivers for engaging in a masculine activity. To our surprise, we found that the effect of these internalized effects was stronger — the gender difference in creative performance was larger — when individuals evaluated their own creative performance.

Culture played a significant role in determining the gender disparity as well. Cultures that were more masculine (e.g., U.S.) were detrimental for women's creativity, whereas those that were gender-egalitarian or relations-focused (e.g., Nordic countries) were conducive for women's creativity.

Although our findings indicated that the disparity between men's and women's creative performance existed universally, we found optimistic results about the decline in the gender gap in recent years.

Finally, as the nature of gender biases and even creativity may vary across industries, we expected the gender divide to diminish in industries with a greater women presence. Surprisingly, however, our findings indicated that irrespective of the industry, the gender gap in creative performance was problematically pervasive.

Can you give a description of how you define creativity?

This is a very important question — one that we spent considerable effort explaining in our paper. Despite all we know about what enhances or constrains creativity, the question of what exactly is creativity remains a topic of discussion in the academic world.

There is strong agreement that anything that is novel (or unique) and useful (or feasible) is creative. But then the question looms — is creativity the capability to produce something novel or useful or is creativity the final outcome that is generated? Or, is creativity the process through which this generation of unique and feasible product(s) happens?

In our study, we use a simple framework available in the literature that views the creative phenomenon as an Input-Process-Output model. According to this model, the capability or skill required to produce something novel and feasible (i.e., 'creative ability') is the input. The final outcome — which could be a product, idea, or service — is 'creative performance,' and the transformation of the creative ability (i.e., input) to creative performance (i.e., output) is the 'creative process.'

The focus of our study is creative performance. That is, we examine if there exists a difference between the creativity of the outcomes/outputs generated by men and women.

Now, the assessment of this creative performance could be based on a specific instance: for example, someone may be asked to come up with a creative design for a refrigerator and the creativity of the suggestions is his/her creative performance. Alternatively, creative performance could be an evaluation of multiple past behaviors and the overall novelty and usefulness of those behaviors or actions.

In summation, creativity, or more accurately creative performance, is the generation of outputs that are novel and useful.

How is creativity different from, and similar to, general intelligence?

This has been one of the oldest questions in the study of creativity. Very simply, general intelligence is about being able to acquire knowledge and apply it as needed. Creativity, on the other hand, is about coming up with a concept, idea, service, procedure, or product that is novel and useful.

Creativity and intelligence have been found to be highly correlated, meaning that creative people are generally highly intelligent. However, these are two separate abilities. There certainly is an overlap in the cognitive processes related to intelligence and creativity, but high intelligence does not necessarily make someone creative. This discussion, however, is not a part of our study, as we focus solely on the creative performance of men and women and do not examine or compare their general intelligence.

What are the practical takeaways from your research for someone looking to become more creative? Is it possible to 'learn' creativity?

One of the biggest takeaways of this study is the acknowledgment of the existence of a gender gap in creative performance. Until now, gender inequality has been viewed as an issue in terms of a pay gap, or hiring discrimination, or lack of equal promotion opportunities for men and women. However, this study highlights that disparity in creative performance across genders may be something that managers and organizations need to be mindful of and consistently work towards alleviating.

An interesting finding of our research that has major organizational implications is that the creative performance gender difference was larger when employees evaluated their own creativity, as compared to when others were rating their creativity. In simple terms, it appeared that, knowingly or not, women were more self-critical when it came to creativity. Although others' biased ratings of women's creative performance did exist, the biases women held against themselves appeared stronger.

This is surprising as gender studies have majorly focused on others' prejudices, but have placed less focus on the subconscious biases that women may develop against themselves. An important first step to resolve this might be simply to make women aware of these internalized gender biases to help them overcome it. Moreover, organizations and leaders need to take suitable measures and provide the right kind of environment, such that women not only feel comfortable being creative, but also view their creativity accurately. Based on the findings of this research, an environment that fosters gender egalitarianism, kindness, equality, and concern for others is likely to be beneficial in boosting the creativity of women and men.

Did you find any other demographic differences in terms of creative performance?

This is an interesting question. However, it is one that we cannot shed light on because it was outside of the scope of our work. In our research, we specifically searched for studies that reported participants' gender and their creative performance. Altogether, we reviewed 259 studies to draw conclusions about gender's effect on creative performance. We did not, however, examine other demographic differences in this study. It absolutely remains possible that there are other demographic attributes that may affect one's creativity, but it is a question that will have to be addressed in future work.

After conducting your research, are you more likely to view creativity as having a stark gender divide?

This is a very fascinating question — one that our research team was curious about as we started to work on this project. Our findings indicate that the overall gender difference in creative performance is small — and the gap is contextually dependent. Having said that, the gender disparity in creative performance that we observed in our study is comparable in magnitude/size to the gender gap seen in self-esteem, talkativeness, leadership emergence, or initiation of negotiations.

Considering women now form nearly half of the working population (or at least they did in the pre-COVID world), any sort of gender divide, however small, is problematic for both women employees as well as organizations that employ them as they are unable to tap the full potential of all their employees.

Moreover, an interesting finding of our study is how the creative performance gender gap is contingent on the context. For instance, we find that the gender difference in creative performance was larger in older times as compared to recent times. In addition, our results highlight that some cultures that are more gender-egalitarian or focus on eliminating status hierarchies or those that are more altruistic are able to provide a more conducive environment for the creativity of men and women. As such, we see a smaller gender gap in those cultures. Whereas in cultures that are more assertive, we see a larger gender difference in creative performance. Altogether, while the overall gender divide in creative performance can be considered small in size, it is important that we take into account the context within which creators are embedded as we think about the creative performance of men and women.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on creativity go in the future?

Certainly. Working on this project, we realized the issue of the gender gap in creative performance is far more nuanced than originally thought, and several questions remain unanswered. It is not just about who is more creative, but more about when either of the genders are able to generate creative output, or why a difference in creative performance even exists.

Although the gender divide in creative performance may seem small, it cannot be ignored that previous research provides evidence about the relative equality in men's and women's creative abilities. So if the capability to be creative is equivalent across genders, then why does their performance vary? In this study, we examined gender roles and their effect on how men's and women's creativity is perceived, but it is likely that there are other factors that affect the creative process of men and women.