Existing research has already suggested that gender bias colors the way people judge women at work: women, more than men, are more likely to be seen as either too abrasive or too timid, for example. But now there's new evidence to suggest that women are up against the assumption that they're less creative, too.

Researchers at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business recently examined whether gender bias plays any role in identifying work as "creative." Lead researcher Devon Proudfoot, whose research focuses on stereotyping and inequality at work, says that in particular, the way Western culture describes creative geniuses is biased towards qualities that are more often associated with men.

"The popular way that people tend to think of creative thinking is in terms of this 'outside-the-box' process--meaning that you are different than others, that you assert your autonomy, and that very clearly overlaps with stereotypes we have related to the traits that men are assumed to have by virtue of their gender," Proudfoot told Inc. "Men are expected to be self-reliant, autonomous, courtageous, risk-taking and so on."

To test their hypothesis, the researchers conducted five studies, all of which examined how participants perceived creativity, and published the results in the journal Psychological Science. In one of the studies, Proudfoot and fellow researchers Aaron Kay and Christy Zoval asked participants to rate 16 different characteristics on a nine-point scale of how important they were to creativity. Eight of the characteristics were stereotypically "masculine" (i.e. competitive and willing to take risks) and the other eight were stereotypically "feminine" (i.e. cooperative and understanding of others).

But before they ranked how important the characteristics were to creative thinking, half of the 80 participants read a definition of creativity that emphasized "outside-the-box" thinking--being able to see the world differently, and not conforming to conventional wisdom. The other half was given a definition that emphasized "connecting the dots"--to see the connections between seemingly disparate ideas.

The participants that read the definition that emphasized outside-the-box thinking were more likely to rate masculine characteristics as being more necessary to fostering creative thinking. Meanwhile, the participants that viewed creativity as connecting the dots were more likely to give the more stereotypically feminine characteristics a positive ranking.

In another study, Proudfoot and her fellow researchers asked 125 participants to read a description of a male or female manager and their strategic plans--which were described as either more risky or less risky than usual. They then rated the manager on a number of qualities, including how competent and creative he or she was, and whether or not the manager was deserving of a reward. 

As the researchers predicted, the male managers whose plans were described as more risky were consequently described by the participants as more creative. But, female managers with risky plans were not more likely to be viewed as creative. Furthermore, the participants were more likely to view the risk-prone male managers as more deserving of rewards--highlighting the dangers of associating creativity with stereotypically masculine traits.

"Creativity evaluation can actually have tangible economic outcomes for men and women in the workplace," Proudfoot told Inc.

Published on: Oct 1, 2015