If you’ve ever wondered why there are fewer women with top jobs in the creative industries, it could be down to the fact that people stereotypically associate men with thinking ‘outside the box’, according to a new US study.

The research, published in the Psychological Science journal, found that the work and achievements of men are evaluated as more creative than those produced by women.

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“Our research shows that beliefs about what it takes to ‘think creatively’ overlap substantially with the unique content of male stereotypes, creating systematic bias in the way that men and women’s creativity is evaluated,” says lead researcher Devon Proudfoot of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University.

He added: “When people think about ‘creative thinkers’ they usually picture qualities like risk-taking, adventurousness, and self-reliance – characteristics typically ascribed to men but not women.”

In an online study, Proudfoot and his colleagues randomly assigned 169 participants to read about either an architect or a fashion designer; some were told the professional was male and others were told that the professional was female.

The participants then viewed three images of the person’s work and were then asked to rate the designs on their creativity, originality, and divergent thinking. 

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The male architect was judged as more creative than the female architect, despite the fact that their creations were perfectly identical. 

However, there was no evidence of a gender difference in creativity ratings for the fashion designers, as traditional male stereotypes may be more difficult to apply to this activity.

The researchers concluded that the “result suggests that gender bias in creativity judgments may affect tangible economic outcomes for men and women in the workplace”. 

Proudfoot continued: “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.”