Why Don’t Women Get Credit for Creativity?

Hand holding a glowing lightbulb
Photo by Rohan Makhecha on Unsplash

Like many people in academic or academic-adjacent careers, I eagerly binged this fall’s Netflix series “The Chair,” which follows the trials and tribulations of the first woman of color serving as chair of the English department at a prestigious private university. Despite an outstanding performance by Sandra Oh, as the department chair, I found the series to be disappointingly forgettable, relying on tropes rather than delving into complexities. However, one scene sticks in my mind: Yaz, a young rising star in the department who also happens to be a Black woman, accidentally stumbles upon a less-than-enthusiastic review letter written about her by Elliott, the older white male chair of her tenure committee.

The scene has stayed with me because it evokes a powerful memory. When I was a graduate student applying for a prestigious fellowship, over a decade ago, I also saw a recommendation letter I was not meant to see. It was from a white male professor, not my advisor but someone I had hoped to work with. It also damned me with faint praise.

Gender and racial bias in recommendation letters are familiar and pervasive issues, but “The Chair” does not get into specifics about the contents of Elliott’s letter. Indeed, there has been considerable discussion of the show’s omissions and its unrealistic treatment of some aspects of Yaz’s situation as a woman of color at a primarily white institution. Although my situation differed from Yaz’s in many ways, most notably in that racial bias was not a factor, I can tell you what stung most about the letter I saw: My professor had given me a weak rating for “originality.”

Like many former graduate students, I have spent years processing the injustices I experienced in grad school. It turns out that most of these injustices have names. The way I felt when I saw that a professor I respected had discounted my originality, the feeling that maybe he was right and I wasn’t creative enough to succeed in our field — that was impostor syndrome.

Rather ironically, the same professor who downgraded my originality eventually “gave” my seminar paper to another student as his thesis project, without my knowledge or permission. That student, who I believe did not realize what had happened, ultimately published multiple peer-reviewed articles based on the experiments I had outlined.

Sadly, female scientists having their ideas appropriated by male colleagues happens often enough that it also has a name: the Matilda Effect. The historian of science Margaret Rossiter coined the term in 1993, naming the phenomenon after Matilda Gage, a nineteenth-century feminist who documented numerous historical examples in her tract “Woman As Inventor,” first published all the way back in 1870. A familiar and more recent example is the story of the African-American women mathematicians whose contributions to NASA in the mid-20th century were largely forgotten until the publication of “Hidden Figures,” by Margot Lee Shetterly, in 2016.

The question I keep coming back to, of course, is why the Matilda Effect happened to me. It would be easy to dismiss the professor in question as a sexist jerk, but this strikes me as both inaccurate and facile. For one thing, my ideas were blatantly appropriated multiple times while I was in grad school, not just by this one professor but by several, and similar incidents have occurred in my life since grad school as well. Even based on my own experience, then, not to mention the experience of women for many generations, it is likely there is something bigger going on than that all the men involved were chauvinist pigs. It seems more productive, and ultimately more empowering, to dig into the complexities of why women don’t get the credit they deserve for their ideas, and to think deeply about how this phenomenon can be prevented.

Partly, I believe, the Matilda Effect arises from the fundamental human impulse to make discoveries and create lasting knowledge by building on one another’s ideas. Think of Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

Our work is constantly being influenced by those around us, and we often deliberately surround ourselves with others whose ideas we can feed off of, for example in academic departments, think tanks, or artists’ colonies. When people work closely together, it’s not always clear where the ideas first came from. Consider this anecdote about Clara Schumann, the nineteenth-century pianist and composer, and her great friend the composer Johannes Brahms:

In 1891, when Clara was preparing an edition of her cadenzas, she was suddenly overwhelmed by guilt when she realized that the cadenzas to the Mozart D Minor Piano Concerto that she had been playing as her own had been borrowed largely from Brahms. She wrote to ask if she shouldn’t put his name on it too. Brahms answered that in that case, he would have to put her name on all his loveliest melodies, for ‘I owe more melodies to you than…passages you could take from me.’ (Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman, by Nancy B. Reich, p. 184)

Alongside the beautiful impulse to build on each other’s ideas, there are also darker power dynamics at play. A more general version of the Matilda Effect, dubbed the “Matthew Effect” by Robert Merton in 1968, describes the phenomenon of scientists who have more power and prestige to begin with gaining outsized recognition for their accomplishments relative to less powerful colleagues.

So part of what happened to me, I now believe, could have happened to any grad student, or any person experiencing a power differential due to their gender, race, professional status, or other identity. Certainly many academic fields have a culture of “what’s my student’s is mine.” There was a third factor in my case, though, and I suspect in many other cases of women being denied credit for their ideas. It is also a phenomenon with a name: gender bias in perceived creativity, or more simply, creativity bias.

Research by Devon Proudfoot and her colleagues suggests that women are seen as less creative than men in a wide variety of contexts. This creativity bias is not based on actual creative abilities, which when measured tend to either be the same across genders or higher for females. Rather, creativity bias seems to stem from associating creativity with stereotypically “masculine” traits such as independence and self direction. Women even perceive other women as less creative than men.

The creativity bias appears to be highly related to the phenomenon of women receiving less credit for their ideas. For example, women’s creative contributions to team research are less professionally valued than the contributions of their male colleagues. Women also receive less credit than men for their ideas in everyday work situations. This lack of credit is intertwined with power dynamics in fascinating ways. For example, Proudfoot and her colleagues found that supervisors tend to discount the creativity of women they supervise, whereas direct reports don’t discount the creativity of their female bosses. Socialized gender differences also play a role. There is a significant gender gap in self-promotion, with women self-describing their abilities and performance less favorably compared to equally competent men.

Critically, and complicatedly, even when male colleagues have the best of intentions, they still don’t always hear what the women around them are saying. Take Barack Obama, for example, who is one of my great heroes, not least because of his incredible integrity and his penchant for surrounding himself with strong and powerful women. When Obama was president, his female staffers initially felt unheard, and in response adopted effective strategies like “amplifying” each other’s ideas during meetings in order to make sure they were getting credit. Once Obama became aware of the situation, he felt terrible and intervened, as described in his memoir A Promised Land, but the key point here is that he did not even notice what was happening until his (female) adviser Valerie Jarrett brought it to his attention.

When you take the creativity bias, together with the fact that women receive less credit for their ideas, and you consider the alchemy of power and socialized gender dynamics, not to mention good old-fashioned sexism, it starts to feel less mysterious how women’s work could be appropriated by their male colleagues, even if said colleagues are well intentioned, even if they care deeply about giving women credit. We sometimes notice, often well after the fact, when women don’t get credit for a groundbreaking discovery — hence the “Matilda Effect.” But there is so much that has already happened before the moment a paper is published without a woman’s name on it or her male colleague is awarded a prize that she also should have received.

Every day, we make small decisions that will eventually influence whether women will be recognized in big ways for their contributions — in other words, whether they will eventually triumph over or fall victim to the Matilda Effect. Those of us who run meetings can implement “no interrupting” rules and make sure we are providing opportunities for everyone to speak. When we write or evaluate recommendation letters, we can be cognizant of the use of gendered language as well as the existence of various biases against women, including the creativity bias. All of us, regardless of how much power we have or don’t have, can amplify each other’s ideas, like the women in the Obama White House. We can each learn to name the biases we see and to recognize them in ourselves as well as others. And above all, we can strive to give credit where credit is due.

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Family, relationships, and life after divorce with a twist of humor. Exploring happiness, creativity, and how to be a good person in a complicated world.

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Brianna Conrey

Brianna Conrey

Family, relationships, and life after divorce with a twist of humor. Exploring happiness, creativity, and how to be a good person in a complicated world.

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