/ 9 March 2024

I dare to ask: Are women more creative than men?

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(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

‘It’s an interesting question but also a very problematic and annoying question,” Kgethi Phakeng, former University of Cape Town vice-chancellor, said when I asked her to respond to the title of this column. “You might as well ask if black people are more creative than white people.”

With all due respect to an amazing woman, I suggest it’s not the same. Race is not genetic. I’m not talking about gender, either, with its 74 contemporary options. 

Woman/man is a biological, factual binary — only about 1% of humans do not fall physically into either category from birth. Men and women do differ in significant ways, physically, psychologically and socially. That’s part of why we celebrate women this month — because they are women. 

And one of the ways that women are different is — gulp, here we go then… Women are more creative than men. Overall. On average.

I know this issue is controversial, and maybe a man shouldn’t be writing this. But I’m a man, and this is my column, with my picture on it, so there you go. I get the irony. I promise not to mansplain. 

The intention of this exploration is to erase lines, not draw them, to open a dialogue that can connect us better on this topic. It’s a dialogue many people seem hesitant to enter. I tested it on social media over the past week, and here’s what I discovered:

90% of the men said:

a. “We’re the same” or 

b. “My wife is definitely more creative than me.”

90% of the women said: 

a. “We’re the same” or 

b. “Women are a little better because of empathy, communication skills and paying attention.”

Even AI app DALL-E objected to my request: “Creating an image to depict why women are more creative than men introduces a challenge due to the subjective nature of creativity and its measurement. Creativity is a complex trait that varies widely among individuals, regardless of sex. Depicting one as inherently more creative than the other could reinforce stereotypes and overlook the nuances of individual creative potential.”

About 70% of my clients when I work with individuals are women. In my work with companies, an even higher percentage of women are the ones who get excited about and participate in the creativity conversation, and take the lead.

Women excel at thinking differently to generate novel solutions to problems — one of the most basic ways to define creativity. Given the right context, women blow men out of the creative water. 

Psychologist Arthur Tullett found that female project managers consistently outscored their male counterparts on creative measures. His explanation was that these women had to embody much higher levels of innovativeness to break into leadership in the first place. That the perception is opposite seems to be down to a familiar culprit — gender bias. 

Snehal Hora, of Buffalo State University, published a study studying 250 other studies, in which men’s peers consistently scored them as more creative. The gap was greatest in the most traditional work cultures — correlating to differences in self-esteem, assertiveness, self-efficacy and sensitivity to criticism. Women gave other women the worst ratings.

Women and men alike in these studies perceived the important qualities for creativity to be macho traits such as independence, daring and rebelliousness. Yet Hora’s work showed that environments fostering “kindness, equality, and concern for others” boosted the perceived creativity of women a great deal. That was not surprising. What was shocking was the more feminised environment also boosted the creativity levels of men.

But should this have been shocking? Creativity requires being tuned in to the flow of the universe. It demands empathy. It thrives in a culture of collaboration, communication and emotional intelligence. And let’s be honest, my fellow fellows, women are better at all of that. 

In matriarchal societies such as the Mosuo in southwest China, women lead creativity without interference. They do not exclude the men. When women are in charge, teamwork improves and innovation is more successful.

Former Joburg city councillor Rehana Moosajee proposes it’s less about physical sex than spiritual energy. “We all have a creative energy centre,” Moosajee said. “Women are more in touch with themselves, and so in touch with this centre. But some men are too — and they display great creativity.”

Susan Keller-Mathers, a professor at Buffalo State University, agrees. “Maybe it’s just that women are differently creative than men. One of the key definitions of creativity is the generation of value. And measuring value is very subjective.”

(Full disclosure: Keller-Mathers is teaching me in my creativity and change leadership master’s programme).

In their book, Remarkable Women, Kathleen Noble and Rena Subotnik write about how women deliver value across a diverse set of variables often more personal than professional. Sally Reis, head of the educational psychology department at the University of Connecticut, similarly found that female artists with families prioritised their children ahead of their creative work.

Relationships before results. People ahead of product. Society often diminishes this value. Feats of Big-C Creativity can require an unflagging devotion that comes into conflict with personal life. For women, personal life wins more often than not.

The 50-year Mills study showed that attention to traditional roles such as wife and mother squeezes the time women can devote to creative work and suppresses their interest in focusing on it. 

But women who felt supported by families, communities and workplaces were more likely to sustain creative activities even during these constrained times.

Speaking of families, let’s not forget the ultimate in creativity: women grow babies inside their bodies. Men cannot grow babies inside our bodies (except in one Arnold movie). And conception is just the start. In creative problem-solving, development is the step that makes the biggest difference. Let’s be honest again, gents, in childbirth, women do all the development work, and go through all the suffering of ensuring successful delivery. 

When women become pregnant, they have to shift their entire way of being almost instantly. 

And they do so with remarkable levels of adaptability and resilience — two more essential underpinnings of creative flexibility. As Phakeng said: “Women are never just women. They’re always something else as well.”

Creativity educator Emem Opashi said it this way in her reply to one of my posts: “Women are incubators and nurturers of mini-lives, using their creative powers daily to multiply little into enough for their families, and still showing up as the stars they are. These super powers need to be celebrated more often.”

So let’s celebrate them.

Creative theorist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote: “To understand creativity one must move from a focus on the individual to a systemic perspective that includes the social and cultural context in which the creative person operates.”

And this is perhaps the strongest argument for the creativity of women. In the sociological context, it seems a miracle that women have managed to be creative at all. Despite gross disadvantages and discrimination over, well, basically all of recorded history, some women (Marie Curie, Maya Angelou, Fatima Al-Fihri, share your list) have delivered creative breakthroughs that have changed the world.

Part of the problem may be that women are too humble. Yet humility is another indicator of creativity. Moosajee sent me a message she received this week from the Brahma Kumaris: “Creativity comes when the intellect is humble. Because humility is a form of love, it brings newness in everything that is done.”

What will happen if we support women to be freed into their creative genius completely? 

Even better, what if we men, too, embrace our nurturing gentle yin? 

If every human being maximises the sacred feminine that fuels creativity what would the world be like? How would we all be different? What would be possible?

Michael Lee is a creativity expert, an advisory board member of World Creativity and Innovation Week/Day, and Radio 702 creativity contributor.