Emphasizing Natural Brilliance Might Keep Women Away From Certain Fields

Disparities in science prompted researchers to look into other fields — such as philosophy and economics — as well to find a cause

students at work
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Look at many measures of success in science and you’ll find inequality: Women with science or engineering PhDs face higher degrees of unemployment and lower pay. While some fields, such as biology, have evened out the ratio, others, like physics, still lag behind. Minorities also face an imbalance

These facts have prompted sprawling discussions of possible causes—scientists are less likely to hire women to work in their labs, women are more likely to feel they are unqualified and don't belong. But one research group decided to look beyond science and engineering for an answer: they reasoned that if stereotypes are keeping some people down, the effect will extend to other fields.

A survey of 1,820 faculty, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students from 30 different disciplines reveals that people think that excelling in some fields requires brilliance and genius. Turns out, those fields match up with areas where women are underrepresented—including math, physics, philosophy, economics and music composition. The study was published in Science.

In a press release, author Andrei Cimpian, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois, explains it's not that brilliance is a bad thing or that women aren’t brilliant. "Our data don’t address that," he says. "What they suggest is that conveying to your students a belief that brilliance is required for success may have a differential effect on males and females that are looking to pursue careers in your field." 

Sarah Jane Leslie, the lead author of the paper and a professor of philosophy at Princeton University, points to examples in popular culture to illustrate how men are more commonly associated with raw genius than women are. In a press conference she cited Sherlock Holmes and the similar Dr. House as examples of brilliant men. Hermione Granger, from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, is a brilliant young women—but she’s shown as earning this distinction through hard work and diligence. "Women’s accomplishments are seen as grounded in long hours, pouring over books, rather than in some kind of special, raw, effortless brilliance," she says.

African Americans were also less well represented in the fields associated with natural intellectual talent. But the pattern didn’t hold for Asian Americans.

The researchers also tried to come up with alternative explanations for what they found. Perhaps women are unwilling or unable to put in the long hours required for excellence in their field. Or maybe women simply don’t have the ability to break into the most selective fields. (Basically, they considered whether women might actually be less talented than men.) Finally, they looked at whether women just weren’t interested in abstract or systematic thinking and instead preferred more emotional and empathetic fields.

All these hypotheses have been offered before, but they did not explain the data Leslie, Cimpian and their colleagues found. The researchers rejected each of these explanations after statistical analysis. For example, fields that are more selective tended to have more women rather than fewer.

Their results could be explained, however, if women and African Americans are doubting themselves. Or it could be that the people making hiring decisions are unconsciously biased and don’t see brilliance in such minority candidates.

This finding—that the expectation of raw brilliance, rather than hard work, may steer women away from some fields—helps address a problem with other studies that focus on disparities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), writes Andrew Penner, a sociologist from the University of California, Irvine, in a commentary accompanying the study. Other hypotheses have failed to explain why women now pursue law at similar rates to men. There are plenty of barriers in law that might seem like they'd keep women from succeeding—long hours, competitive culture, less-than-family-friendly expectations. However, law doesn’t emphasis natural brilliance the way STEM fields do.  

And the study points to a solution, Cimpian said in the press conference. "If we avoid labeling and categorizing others based on their perceived intellectual gift, and instead assess what can be achieved with sustained effort and dedication, we might create an atmosphere that is equally attractive to men and women."

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