working women

Headlines Can Hurt

A group called the Women’s Media Center has the laudable mission to improve the status of women in the media.  They try to increase the visibility and numbers of female content-creators (such as journalists and broadcasters), and work for better representation of female voices and viewpoints in the subjects and stories, themselves.  I’ve written about the statistics for female journalists in the past, but today I’m going to focus on another issue the media creates for women by picking on an article that I think is harmful to women, especially professional women.

First, there’s the title: “If You Want Female Employees to be Creative, Don’t Make Them Compete At Work”.  Even before you read the article, you can see why this headline is disappointing to working women.  If you don’t even read the article, you’ve just gotten the message saying that if you hire a woman, you won’t be able to get her to be competitive and creative at the same time.  That’s a pretty lose-lose situation.  By definition, everyone wants a creative worker.  By definition, work is competitive.  Even if you work at a charity, you’re competing against other charities to raise funds from the same donors for similar causes.  In the typical corporate setting, we compete against colleagues for promotions, and we certainly compete with other companies in the marketplace for the same customers, employees, and shareholders.

But this article is based on an academic study and I cite academic studies all the time in this blog to point out data.  Am I just unhappy with the message this time?  Actually, no: the data isn’t even what the article implies it is.  Take a look at the abstract, alone (emphasis in bold text, is mine):

Building on social role theory, we extend a contingency perspective on intergroup competition proposing that having groups compete against one another is stimulating to the creativity of groups composed largely or exclusively of men but detrimental to the creativity of groups composed largely or exclusively of women. We tested this idea in two separate studies: a laboratory experiment (Study 1) and a field study (Study 2). Study 1 showed that competition had the expected positive effects on the creativity of groups composed mostly or exclusively of men and produced the predicted negative effects on the creativity of groups composed of women, even though the latter effects emerged at the high end of the competition spectrum and for sex-homogeneous groups only


In other words, the creativity diminishing effect was only present when competition was happening with majority-female or all-female groups.  In other words, this would only be an issue in real life if for some reason a company set up a competition where the teams comprised “the boys vs. the girls” (extremely unlikely) or just “girls vs. girls” (more likely but only in certain industries that are female-dominated).  

Why am I bothering to make such a fine point?  I know we live in an era of algorithmically driven journalism and eye-ball catching-grabbing titles generate clicks.  However, I’m tired of seeing this particular headline being sent around social media among women’s groups because I think it reinforces dangerous ideas about women that aren’t even based on thorough reading (much less, responsible reporting).  I’ve already sent my view to the the author of the article.  Sometimes its better to write nothing than something as misleading and harmful as this.


2 thoughts on “Headlines Can Hurt

  1. Thank you for your perspective. I only just discovered your blog and look forward to reading further. I am a woman in corporate America and am finding more often than not that as women we are actually hurting each other rather than lifting each other up. To your point here, competition at work pushes me to be more creative and innovative.

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