Women Can't Be Geniuses? Stereotypes May Explain Gender Gap

The gender gap in certain academic fields may be due to those fields' emphasis on brilliance (rather than hard work, for example) and stereotypes that hold that women can't be geniuses, new research suggests.

Researchers surveyed 1,820 people working in academia in the U.S. in 30 disciplines, ranging from computer science to music composition, asking them what is required for succeeding in their field. In some fields, success was viewed as a matter of hard work and dedication, but in others, having a special inborn talent was seen as more important. [5 Reasons Women Trail Men in Science]

The researchers found a trend: The more importance that the academics in a given field placed on being brilliant, the lower the percentage of women with Ph.D.s there was in that field, according to the study, published today (Jan. 15) in the journal Science.

People's ideas about the importance of brilliance in attaining success didn't seem related to the difficulty of their field. Indeed, fields that emphasized brilliance and had lower female participation were not necessarily more difficult to gain entry into, compared with other disciplines, said study author Sarah-Jane Leslie, a professor of philosophy at Princeton University in New Jersey.

"This strongly 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," she said. "So rather, there must be something else going on."

The researchers proposed that cultural ideas about women's innate talent could be what's stopping them from pursuing careers in certain fields, even though no real intellectual difference between genders has ever been proven, they said.

"Cultural associations link men, but not women, with raw intellectual brilliance," Leslie said. "To get a feel for this, we can consider, for example, how difficult it is to think of even a single pop-cultural portrayal of a woman who displays that same special spark of innate, unschooled genius as Sherlock Holmes or Dr. House from the show 'House M.D.,' or Will Hunting from the movie 'Good Will Hunting.'"

Instead, women who are presented as intellectually accomplished tend to be portrayed as incredibly hardworking — for example, Hermione Granger in the "Harry Potter" series, Leslie said. "In this way, women's accomplishments are seen as grounded in long hours, poring over books, rather than in some special raw effortless brilliance."

The findings suggest a new explanation for the gender imbalances seen in many academic fields, including not only STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), but also humanities and social sciences, the researchers said. Women are well represented at the Ph.D. level in some sciences, such as molecular biology, whereas in some subjects within the humanities, such as in philosophy, women make up only a third of Ph.D.s.

The researchers also found that the fields whose members felt that a spark of genius was required for success were less likely to have African Americans with Ph.D.s.

"Like women, African Americans are the targets of negative cultural stereotypes about their intellectual abilities," said study co-author Andrei Cimpian, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"It is important to be aware of the message we send to young people, including our students, about how one becomes successful in a field," Cimpian said. "If we avoid labeling and categorizing others based on their perceived intellectual gifts, and instead emphasize what can be achieved with sustained effort and dedication, we might create an atmosphere that is equally attractive to men and women."

Email Bahar Gholipour. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Originally published on Live Science.

Bahar Gholipour
Staff Writer
Bahar Gholipour is a staff reporter for Live Science covering neuroscience, odd medical cases and all things health. She holds a Master of Science degree in neuroscience from the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris, and has done graduate-level work in science journalism at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She has worked as a research assistant at the Laboratoire de Neurosciences Cognitives at ENS.