Could expectations of sheer brilliance be the root of the gender imbalance across many academic fields? Not actual brilliance, mind you. Just expectations of brilliance. That is the argument made in “Expectations of Brilliance Underlie Gender Distributions Across Academic Disciplines” published this week in Science.
The authors of the study argue that there is a stereotype that women don’t have the intrinsic brilliance of men. The belief is that women are not “born with it” and instead acquire intelligence through hard work. Anecdotally, Dr. Leslie (the primary investigator) mentioned the differences between fictional characters like the innately brilliant Sherlock Holmes and House M.D. and that of Harry Potter’s hard working Hermione Granger as illustrations of this stereotype.1
The researchers explain that some fields, notably computer science and physics, are perceived as being subjects that you either get or you don’t. Essentially, super smart people just innately understand the mindset of the field and that if you don’t have it, you can’t acquire it. Oh, and by the by, turns out most of us assume that innate intelligence comes in a very manly form.
When you combine the perception that some fields require innate intelligence and the stereotype that women can work hard but don’t actually have that innate brilliance, you can hypothesize that there will be fewer female in participants in fields that are perceived to require that elusive it factor. This study illustrated exactly that correlation.
The study encompassed 30 different disciplines, 12 in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields and 18 in the Social Sciences and Humanities. It surveyed 1820 participants ranging from faculty members to graduate students.
The researchers first asked: do you need to be innately brilliant to be successful in your field? Next, they asked: do other people think you need to be innately brilliant to be successful in your field? Except they fancied it up, turned the question around in a couple of different ways and basically did all the normal statistical things to make it not dumb.
So, after finding out a perception of brilliance quotient – which they more responsibly describe as “field-specific ability beliefs” – they correlated that impression of necessary exceptionalism with the number of female PhD recipients. And they found that fields that have a higher expectation of brilliance have a lower number of female PhDs.
The researchers used three other models to illustrate that this correlation is significant. The first is essentially the old logic vs. emotion chestnut: does your field value empathetic thinking or systematic thinking? Interestingly, no correlation was found between gender and the kinds of thinking required for the field. Work/life balance was also correlated, essentially plotting the number of women in the field against the number of hours of work believed to be required for success in the field. Again, no correlation was found. They also plotted the selectivity of the field against the gender balance, and found no correlation. Finally, the team used regression analysis to make sure that the chicken wasn’t before the egg: are fields that have a higher number of women not thought of as having a need for brilliance because of the higher numbers of women in the field. Again, they found no evidence of this being the case.
The authors created two other statistical models that tell their own compelling story. Reflecting on stereotypes, the researchers correlated the brilliance quotient against race – arguing that there are similar stereotypes against African-Americans, and that those stereotypes aren’t applied to Asian-Americans. And, bam! The correlations were exactly what you’d expect – the higher the expectation of brilliance the fewer African-Americans participated in the field, a correlation that wasn’t found when the study focused on Asian Americans.
While the authors are quick to point out they aren’t arguing for a single explanation to explain a lack of gender diversity, this paper makes one of the best arguments in a long time for a new way of thinking about gender disparity in academic fields – and specifically in STEM fields. After spending years in academia, it’s hard to watch the amount of time and energy going into increasing female involvement in the STEM fields while the results of that effort just seem to trickle away. A new understanding of why we have dramatic gender imbalances could open up potential avenues to solve the problem.
And, just to reiterate: it is a problem. Having diverse voices in a field keeps a discipline fresh and exciting – looking at problems in new ways and with new perspectives can mean the difference between stagnation and new discoveries. I, for one, am firmly in favor of new discoveries.
Dr. Joline Zepcevski has a PhD in the History of Science and Technology from the University of Minnesota, specializing in the history of software. She spends her time seething about gender imbalance in computer science and yelling about the evil of Barbie.
Paper cited throughout this article is: S-J. Leslie, A.Cimpian, E. Freeland, M. Meyer (2015) “Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines” in Science,Vol. 347, Issue 6219
AAAS Teleconference/Jan 14, 2015 ↩