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Gender gap in academia strongest in fields that emphasize ‘brilliance’

Men tend to outnumber women in fields such as physics and philosophy that prioritize ‘genius,’ study says

Why are so few women pursuing Ph.D.s in science, technology, engineering and math? Challenging the notion that women don’t want to work long hours or can’t make the cut in highly competitive disciplines, a new study published Thursday in the journal Science suggests there’s another reason: stereotypes about what genius looks like.

Researchers from Princeton University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who noted that gender imbalances are not restricted to science and math, found that some academic fields put a high premium on qualities described as brilliance or genius and that many people assume women don’t have those qualities. As educators and policymakers struggle to find ways to get more girls and women into science, tech, engineering, math and other fields, understanding why they’re missing is a crucial step in the process.

The study said women earn fewer than 35 percent of doctoral degrees in economics and philosophy; fewer than 30 percent of Ph.D.s in astronomy, computer science and physics; and just 18 percent of undergraduate computer science degrees — a significant decline from 1985, when 37 percent of computer science degrees went to women. Gender ratios are more balanced in other fields. More than half the Ph.D.s in molecular biology and neuroscience go to women, and women earn 70 percent of doctoral degrees in history and psychology.

The authors of the study polled more than 1,800 graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and faculty members across 30 academic disciplines, asking them to what extent they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements, such as, “Being a top scholar requires a special aptitude that just can’t be taught” and “If you want to succeed in [a discipline], hard work alone just won’t cut it; you need to have an innate gift or talent.” The fields in which academic genius — a special aptitude or innate gift — was considered important for success were heavily male-dominated.

Other survey questions addressed whether an academic field demands long hours, requires analytic reasoning or is highly selective. But the researchers found no correlation between gender imbalance and fields in which those descriptions were considered true. The authors say these results argue against alternative theories for why women are absent from certain fields — that women might avoid fields that are intensely competitive, demand long hours or require analytic reasoning skills.

“This is important because it finally suggests that women are not failing to pursue careers in certain fields because they are unable to meet the standards in order to participate in that field but rather there must be something else going on that is decreasing women's participation,” Sarah-Jane Leslie, a philosophy professor at Princeton University and a co-author of the paper, told reporters in a phone conference Wednesday. “What we think is really driving that is the extent to which a field sends a message that you need to be brilliant.”

When this message is delivered early, even women with the utmost confidence and academic ability might be discouraged from entering a particular field, she said. In philosophy, a field that is overwhelmingly male-dominated, Leslie recalled that in the 1980s, scholars in her field used to describe intelligence in terms of what was known as the beam.

“The idea was that some lucky individual was born with a metaphorical beam of light coming from their forehead,” she said. These people, as the thinking went, could shine their beams on any subject material they chose and even without prior study could illuminate it brilliantly. “Of course, it just so happened that all the people with beams turned out to be men.”

Successful women are more often portrayed as hard workers, Leslie said. “Women's accomplishments are seen as grounded in long hours, poring over books, rather than in some kind of special raw effortless brilliance,” she said. “These ambient stereotypes have concrete and powerful implications for women's representation across academic disciplines.”

The same disciplines that prioritized brilliance also predicted lower levels of African-American participation. Psychologists call this phenomenon stereotype threat — when women or minorities avoid certain disciplines or do poorly on standardized testing because of anxiety around stereotypes that they will not perform well.

“Like women, African-Americans are the targets of negative cultural stereotypes about their intellectual abilities, stereotypes that appear to discourage their participation in [certain] fields,” said co-author Andrei Cimpian, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He, Leslie and their two co-authors plan to look further at the correlation between stereotypes of brilliance and the representation of minorities in academia.

The researchers say they hope that changes in how a male-dominated discipline describes itself can make it more inclusive. “We strongly encourage practitioners of disciplines that wish to increase their diversity to downplay the use of words like ‘brilliant,’ ‘genius’ and ‘gifted’ and to emphasize to their students the importance of working hard and being dedicated and sticking with it,” Leslie said.

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