Collaboration is the key to spurring creativity…or is it? Research suggests that women are often undervalued on creative project teams, receiving harsher evaluations and fewer opportunities to participate. However, as new technologies allow for asynchronous work (with team members working independently at different times, and in different spaces), the structure of creative teams is changing.
Aruna Ranganathana and Aayan Dasa studied how asynchronous teamwork affects performance for Baul sangeet folk-music ensembles in eastern India. Most ensembles have several instrumentalists – who are typically men – and a single singer. The ensembles collaborate to decide what music to play and how to shape each song musically. Because each ensemble member plays a unique part, the music can be recorded either synchronously (with all ensemble members performing live together) or asynchronously (with each musician recording their part independently). The researchers interviewed musicians and observed recording sessions. They also conducted an experiment in which Baul singers recorded the same song both synchronously and asynchronously. Their performance was then assessed by musical experts on singer performance, vocal tone, vocal range, and overall group cohesion.
From the interviews and observations, the researchers found that men and women experienced the synchronous recording environment differently. The men enjoyed the synchronous recording and thought that the group brought out their best creative work. They enjoyed creative discussions with other musicians, valued the feedback they received, and felt motivated. “People were encouraging me throughout, which further boosted my confidence; it felt like they were guiding me. I also got respect from all the people here. I also had a great experience interacting with the music producers; they were all very good,” a male musician described.Although some women also preferred synchronous recording and felt they performed best in a group environment, others preferred recording asynchronously. These women described receiving unnecessarily critical feedback or a lack of support and respect from the male musicians in synchronous recording . Some said they couldn’t express creative ideas or concerns.
“The person who was playing the flute was trying to establish himself as a big shot and was constantly boasting about himself,” said one female singer. “He was trying to hint that I was not singing properly at certain points. . . . When I pointed out his mistake, and he was offended by it, no one else supported me even though they knew what I was saying was correct…I felt really bad today.”
Working asynchronously, in contrast, many women felt that their performance improved and that they could express themselves better. One woman described: “Whatever I had within me related to that song, I was able to provide all of it.”The experimental study appeared to bear this out, as the asynchronous environment improved ratings of women’s performance by nearly 30% . Even the women who preferred working synchronously received better performance ratings in an asynchronous environment.
While we don’t know whether asynchronous options have similar effects for other types of work, this study suggests that changes to the structure of work in creative teams can reduce gender disparities in performance and allow women to fully realize their creative potential.