Disciplines That Expect ‘Brilliance’ Tend to Punish Women, Study Finds

January 15, 2015

Here’s a downside to our cultural obsession with genius: It might be a reason for the gender gap in certain academic fields.

New research has found that women tend to be underrepresented in disciplines whose practitioners think innate talent or "brilliance" is required to succeed. According to the findings, that’s true across science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the STEM fields; humanities; and the social sciences.

The research—led by Sarah-Jane Leslie, a philosophy professor at Princeton University, and Andrei Cimpian, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—was published on Thursday in the journal Science.

Ms. Leslie and Mr. Cimpian surveyed more than 1,800 graduate students, professors, and postdoctoral fellows in 30 academic disciplines across the country. The survey included a series of statements and asked participants to rate the extent of their agreement with each one. The statements included: "Being a top scholar of [discipline] requires a special aptitude that just can’t be taught," and "Even though it’s not politically correct to say it, men are often more suited than women to do high-level work in [discipline]."

In many fields with a relatively small proportion of female Ph.D. students, survey respondents placed greater emphasis on brilliance as a prerequisite to success.

One prominent example was philosophy, in which only 31 percent of Ph.D. students are female.

The same phenomenon held true in STEM disciplines like math and physics, each of which have student bodies that are less than 30 percent female.

Sherlock Holmes vs. Hermione Granger

Meanwhile, in disciplines that don’t place such emphasis on innate brilliance—like education, psychology, and molecular biology—a majority of Ph.D. students are women.

One quasi-exception: Art history is a field that’s more than 70 percent female, but its practitioners do emphasize brilliance, at least more so than other fields with similar representation, the study found.

"Pervasive cultural associations link men but do not link women with raw intellectual brilliance," Ms. Leslie said in an interview with reporters on Wednesday.

For examples, she cited pop culture. It’s easy to find portrayals of men with a "special spark of innate, unschooled genius," like various incarnations of Sherlock Holmes or television’s House, M.D. But accomplished and smart women—think Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series—are typically depicted as simply hard-working, Ms. Leslie said.

The study’s authors suggested several reasons women could be underrepresented in fields that value raw talent. There could be bias, often unconscious, among the discipline’s practitioners. Women might also self-select out of those fields, either because they have internalized the stereotype that they are not as innately talented as men or because they anticipate a difficult work atmosphere in which they constantly must prove their worth.

It’s likely a combination of those reasons, Mr. Cimpian said in an interview. Teasing that out, he said, will be a subject for future research.

While the study focused on gender bias, it also found that African-American scholars are less represented in disciplines whose practitioners find a strong link between brilliance and success.

A discrepancy among Ph.D. students is only one facet of the equity problem in STEM fields, said Virginia Shepherd, director of the Vanderbilt Center for Science Outreach. Ms. Shepherd said the gender gap widens as women advance through their education and careers.

Often, women don’t perceive STEM-related careers as family-friendly, she said, and they continue to face bias in areas like hiring, promotion, and award selection.

What can academics who want to diversify their fields do? The study’s authors encourage focusing on the importance of hard work and effort rather than being gifted or brilliant.

"In a nutshell, the issue is not with women’s aptitude, but rather with these disciplines’ attitudes," Ms. Leslie said. "If we can adjust these attitudes, then we are confident that this will lead to increased diversity across the whole range of academic disciplines."