Estrogen is an asset, it turns out. A new study from music researchers has found that women are engaged in creative fields like art, music and literature at higher rates than men — and are generally more creative than men.
In their study released last month, Michael Mauskapf of Columbia Business School, Noah Askin of INSEAD, Sharon Koppman of UC Irvine and Brian Uzzi of Northwestern examined “structural and cultural differences in the work context of creative producers” — an angle they considered to be widely unexplored. They looked at how people come to conclusions through divergent thinking, determined through tests that require a subject to utilize objects in ways that differ from their primary purposes.
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At first, Mauskapf, Askin, Koppman and Uzzi’s data, which pulled from a bank of 250,000 songs produced and released between 1955 and 2000, showed no noteworthy difference between men and women when it came to the output of creative work. When the gender composition of genres and the size of an artist’s network of collaborators were taken into consideration, though, the scholars found that female artists actually create more novel songs — works that are more musically fresh and unusual — than male artists. The Echo Nest, a data science company owned by Spotify, provided information on unique acoustic “finger prints” from audio files, analyzing standard musical attributes (e.g., “tempo,” “mode,” “key,” “time signature”), as well as aural and emotive dimensions of music (“valence,” “danceability,” “acousticness,” “energy,” “liveness” and “speechiness”).
“These results suggest that social factors, rather than differences in raw ability, are responsible for gender disparities in creative production,” researchers wrote.
The study notes that women’s higher rate of novel music production actually seems to be a product of unfairness. “The tendency for women’s performance to be discounted reflects a much broader phenomenon inside and outside organizations,” researchers observed. “For the same levels of performance, women tend to receive more negative evaluations than men, and they have to outperform men to receive comparable evaluations. To overcome this ‘double standard,’ female minorities work harder.”
For a culturally relevant example, the essay’s writers cite recording artist H.E.R. “I had to work twice as hard,” she said at the 2019 Grammy Awards. “I had to earn my respect as a musician growing up as a little girl because you don’t expect a little black girl to pick up the electric guitar.”
To better understand gender inequalities in creative production, the researchers examine when gender disparities emerge. They identified three key variables that affect creative work and career advancement: collaboration network size, network composition, and genre compositions.
“In the context of creative production, female artists may actually benefit more from large collaboration networks than male artists. The latter are constrained by expectations that ‘real men’ do not engage in behaviors like seeking help.”
The study notes that in business settings, men’s independent entrepreneurial behavior is usually celebrated — while women get negatively referred to as bossy or disruptive. But women have a certain creative advantage in music because they’re more collaborative and open to working with others. “In the context of creative production, female artists may actually benefit more from large collaboration networks than male artists,” the study says. “The latter are constrained by expectations that ‘real men’ do not engage in behaviors like seeking help.”
Since arts industries like music are so collaboration-based, “having more women in one’s network may introduce an artist to more novelty-rich diversity, especially if the artist in question is a man,” researchers note.
Another factor affecting women’s musical creativity is the bifurcation of genres by gender. In the same way female lawyers “cluster in family and estate law” and female engineers in “non-core social work activities” because of social pressure, the research study’s authors found, artists affiliated with female-dominated genres may experience status insecurity and be more likely to conform to conventional production practices than those in male-dominated genres. So, even if women show a stronger ability to create original work, societal norms try to put them in boxes that discourage ingenuity.
Even though female music creators were found to be more creative, women are still held back from measurable success in their fields due to gender bias in evaluations of their work and abilities by critics and peers. As the annual USC Annenberg study points out, some 2% of producers across 300 top songs are female. Even though women earn 62% of degrees in the fine and performing arts (U.S. Department of Education 2017), women are less likely to reach the top of their profession, are paid less, win fewer awards, and generally enjoy subdued recognition from the music industry compared to male counterparts.
Female artists are beyond capable. Their abilities exceed those of their male counterparts in multiple ways. They’re divergent thinkers, their work benefits from social interaction, they thrive in collaborative settings, and they’re forced to work harder than men are. Through the data that supports these claims, Mauskapf and his fellow researchers prove that bias and cultural context are serious hindrances. Pantsuit nation, don’t fail us now.
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