Film critics and fans of director Greta Gerwig’s much-lauded adaptation of “Little Women” may blame her notably absent Oscar nomination for best director on the persistence of a Hollywood boys’ club or on lack of interest in a film about women’s advancement by male voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They might be right.
But emerging evidence and research in social science suggests another reason the best director nominations on Sunday night’s Oscar broadcast do not include a woman among them. There’s a general psychological tendency to unwittingly view women’s work as less creative than men’s.
As social psychologists, we wanted to understand why women’s creative genius often goes unrecognized, so we began researching the subject nearly seven years ago. Our findings suggest it may come down to how society tends to think about creativity in general, and how this thought process intersects with long-held gender stereotypes.
Through a series of controlled experiments that were published in the academic journal Psychological Science, we found that people tend to associate creative thinking with stereotypically male traits — qualities such as being adventurous, bold and taking risks. In other words, popular beliefs about what it takes to be creative (“thinking outside the box”) closely align with how society tends to think about masculinity (and men) more generally, and this may lead to bias in how society judges the creativity of men and women.
Through this research, we also found that when a man and woman demonstrated identical behaviors or produced identical pieces of work, the man tended to be seen as more creative than the woman. In one experiment, we showed participants photos of Modernist homes, telling half of them that the architect was a man and the other half that it was a woman. When they thought the creator was a man, observers viewed the architecture as more innovative.
The same pattern can be found in other artistic domains. In ongoing experimental research we find that people characterize an audio clip of ambient instrumental music as more creative when they believe the composer is male. Other researchers have found similar results. This research demonstrates that gender stereotypes influence who and what people deem to be creative, and that bias can creep into their evaluations in ways that they may not even realize.
Author Stephen King, a voting member of the film academy, stepped into the thick of the gender and creativity controversy in mid-January when he tweeted about the lack of diversity among this year’s Oscar nominees. “I would never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality,” he wrote. He may have the purest of intentions, but our research — and the vitriolic backlash he received on Twitter — suggests it isn’t that simple. Judgments of “quality” are not easily disentangled from the gender (or race) of the person who created the work. Creativity is in the eye of the beholder and ultimately subjective, allowing unconscious bias to seep in.
The tendency to undervalue and overlook women’s creative contributions isn’t limited to the arts. One survey found that although women hold nearly a third of top creative roles in the advertising industry, only 13% received the industry’s most prestigious awards in 2018. In addition, female architects report receiving less recognition for their creative contributions than male architects, but more recognition for qualities such as work ethic and project management. The prestigious Pritzker Prize for architects has been awarded to only three women since its inception in 1979 — and two of those women won as part of teams that included men.
Our research suggests that even online ratings of popular TED talks demonstrate a tendency to view men as more innovative. A statistical analysis of these ratings showed that presentations by female experts were rated as less “ingenious” (defined as original and inventive) than talks by male experts, despite being evaluated as similarly informative and persuasive.
Gerwig’s case is compounded by the fact that she was not recognized for a film about barriers to women’s advancement. As Laurie, the lead male character in “Little Women,” wonders on screen, “What women are allowed into the club of geniuses anyway?” The answer, it seems, might be very few — unless we stop trying to ignore gender and instead consider how gender might be influencing our evaluations of creative genius.
Devon Proudfoot is an assistant professor of human resource studies at Cornell University. Aaron Kay is a professor of management and a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.