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The creativity factor

11 January 2012

Women are still a minority in academia and physics in particular. What reasons could explain this gender gap?

Last year two developmental psychologists from Cornell University, Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams, published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences entitled "Understanding current causes of women's underrepresentation in science." The paper caused a stir. Ceci and Williams attributed the low proportion of women in physics and other hard sciences to the choices made by girls and women.

My modest response to the paper was to question whether the choice to avoid the hard sciences is truly free. In their recently posted preprint, Theodore Hill and Erika Rogers looked more deeply into the question of choice. Referring to Ceci and Williams's work, they wrote:

Even if the “women’s preference” conclusion is accepted, the original question of “Why?” remains unanswered, and, perhaps more importantly, so does the question of what could or even should be done about it. Do the majority of women prefer not to go into the hard sciences because of their own limitations in either aptitude or attitude (i.e., they simply don’t have the talent, or they think they don’t have the talent), or because there’s something intrinsically unappealing to them about these fields? And what about the women who do go into these fields, and then leave? The issue of raising children simply does not account for the smaller influxes and larger exoduses observed in hard science careers over others. Is there some other important common factor that should be considered?

Unlike Ceci and Williams, Hill and Rogers are hard scientists. Hill is professor emeritus of mathematics at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Rogers is retired from California Polytechnic State University, where she was a professor of computer science. Perhaps because of their backgrounds, Hill and Rogers seized on a what they perceived to be a glaring limitation of previous studies of gender gaps:

The self-described “top researchers” in the gender gap in science seem to have completely ignored an important and compelling factor. In spite of acknowledging up front “the kind of intense, highly creative thinking required of mathematicians,” they have omitted the well-studied issue of gender differences in creativity. In ignoring the creativity factor, the science gender gap experts have greatly underestimated the potential importance of a completely different set of both biological and societal factors which may “conspire to limit talented women and girls”. Consequently, decision makers are thereby missing significant opportunities for constructive improvements.

Hill and Rogers note that experts in the field of gender differences in creativity often distinguish two facets of creativity: creative ability and creative productivity. Studies of the former facet are inconclusive: There is no strong evidence that men have more creativity ability than women. But Hill and Rogers found a broad consensus about creative productivity: With the exception of creative writing and acting, men outproduce women in architecture, music, science, and other creative fields.

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Given that a successful mathematician or physicist must be both creative and productive, Hill and Rogers wondered if creativity could be a significant factor in explaining the dearth of women in the hard sciences. To answer that question, they reviewed studies of creative productivity with an eye out for possible gender differences. They found three possible factors:

  • Playfulness. Men more than women are willing to engage in playful, seemingly irrelevant activities that sometimes lead to innovative ideas. Hill and Rogers cited card- and Go-playing mathematicians at Bell Labs. I wrote two years ago about Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov's practice of routinely devoting 10% of their time to "crazy things that probably won’t pan out at all, but if they do, it would be really surprising." Geim and Novoselov's playfulness helped them win a Nobel Prize.
  • Curiosity. Studies have shown that on average men are significantly more curious than women. "Curiosity," according to one psychologist quoted by Hill and Rogers, "functions as an adaptive motivational process related to the pursuit of novelty or challenge" and could, Hill and Rogers speculate, help explain gender difference in creativity.
  • Risk taking. Hill and Rogers didn't cite any studies to support the claim that men take more risks and endure failure more readily than women. But it's a widely held view. To prove his and Robin Warren's ridiculed theory that Helicobacter pylori causes stomach ulcers, Barry Marshall drank a petri dish of the bacterium, which first gave him nausea and then, within eight days, gastritis. Antibiotics cured him.
  • Hill and Rogers take seriously—as any scientist should—the possibility that men could be innately more creative than women. But they also note that there are significant cultural and societal reasons for the gender gap in creativity. Society, unlike our genetic programming, can be changed.

    Indeed, the most valuable contribution of Hill and Rogers's work, it seems to me, is to get us thinking about how to create environments where girls and women can develop their creativity and can indulge, as Hill and Rogers put it, in "'unladylike' playful behavior from getting dirty to tearing devices apart."

    As an exemplar of that approach, they cite Stanford University's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, known popularly as the d.school. According to the school's website, "Students and faculty in engineering, medicine, business, law, the humanities, sciences, and education find their way here to take on the world’s messy problems together." Besides nurturing creativity, Stanford's d.school also trains students to deal with failure.

    Hill and Rogers conclude by urging that more resources be devoted to studying and nurturing creativity.

    In the meantime, we feel that changes enhancing and encouraging a “culture of creative opportunity” for students and faculty could be implemented effectively and quickly within current academic environments, particularly those with a view to improving women’s representation in the hard sciences.

    If Hill and Rogers are right and if we follow their advice, followup studies by Ceci and Williams will register a welcome rise in the number of girls and women choosing to pursue physics.

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