The 'Genius' Obsession May Be Why Men Outnumber Women in Academia
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The 'Genius' Obsession May Be Why Men Outnumber Women in Academia

Disciplines that place more emphasis on raw talent include fewer women, but it's not necessarily because men are more brilliant.

The gender gap in academia is no secret, especially in certain fields of study. In fact, it's pretty blindingly obvious if you look at the line-ups of certain conferenc​es, or skim through the faculty pages of certain subjects at most academic institutions.

A recent study poses a new theory as to why some fields in particular have so few women among their ranks: they seek out natural brilliance. And as we all know, brilliance comes in but one form: the white, male genius.


"Some fields more than others seem to assume that in order to succeed at the highest level in their fields, one needs to have a certain spark of genius or brilliance," explained Andrei Cimpian, one of the authors of the paper, which was publishe​d in Science.

He and his co-authors surveyed practitioners of 30 different disciplines at US universities on what they thought was required to succeed in their field. Specifically, they assessed how much people thought that a certain "brilliance"—a natural gift or innate talent that can't be taught—was needed. To give just two examples, this was rated relatively highly in maths, and lower in psychology. They compared their results with the percentage of female PhD candidates in their field.

"We found very strong relationships between this culture variable and female representation, such that the fields that placed more emphasis on brilliance—whose practitioners were more likely to believe that one needs brilliance to succeed—were precisely the fields that also saw lower female representation," said Cimpian.

It's not just STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) fields that suffer from low levels of female representation, though they definitely ha​ve a problem. Certain fields in the humanities also see a big discrepancy, which inspired the researchers to take a broader look across academia.

Fields that placed more emphasis on brilliance were precisely the fields that also saw lower female representation


Take philosophy, for instance: The US National Science Fou​ndation reports that only 27 percent of PhDs in philosophy and ethics were awarded to women in 2013, though 51.2 of all doctorate recipients in the humanities were women. On the other hand, some STEM fields have a high rate of female doctorates, with 58.8 percent of microbiology PhDs in the same year going to women.

The idea of "brilliance," the study authors suggest, could explain underrepresentation across the academic spectrum.

That's because women are often stereotyped as not having this kind of innate ability—this genius gene—as much as men. The study cites several independent reports that back the existence of this stereotype, and it's easy to see its pervasiveness in society. Cimpian referenced a New Yo​rk Times story that uncovered how American parents are more than twice as likely to google "Is my son gifted?" than "Is my daughter gifted?" Meanwhile they're more likely to google "Is my daughter overweight?"

But just as in reality girls are more likely to end up in gifted programs (and boys are more likely to be overweight), stereotypes around women's and men's intelligence don't necessarily reflect the truth of the matter. Nevertheless, the myth​ of the lone founder, the young, white, brainiac male whose natural aptitude trumps any college education, persists in the tech world. And, it seems, in academia.

It's important to note that the study does not try to make claims about how comparatively brilliant men and women are, nor about how important "brilliance" actually is to any specific field. Rather, it's about how the beliefs of people in a given field might affect female representation.


There are several ways this could happen. Most obviously, these gendered stereotypes could lead to bias on the behalf of practitioners already in the field, which could lead to them offering fewer opportunities to women. But stereotypes are also more insidious than that; women could internalise these stereotypes and effectively self-select out of the field, feeling that they probably don't fulfil the requirements.

"Even women who disagree with these stereotypes and don't endorse them might still decide not to pursue these fields, because they anticipate being in a culture where they'll be constantly doubted and put to the test to prove that they belong where they are," added Cimpian.

This kind of doubt is evident in anecdotes from women in academia. On the (sadly not recently updated) Tumblr Academic M​en Explain Things to Me, women document their experiences of being questioned, tested, and "mansplained" by their male peers, often in an academic setting. Being a PhD candidate evidently doesn't immunise women against "fake geek girl" accusations.

Even women who disagree with these stereotypes and don't endorse them might still decide not to pursue these fields

If all this is true, might it not be fair to suggest that women are, in fact, simply less brilliant? In that case, it would only be natural that they would not be represented so much in the most selective of fields.

The researchers on this latest paper also took this hypothesis into account, asking the same practitioners to estimate what percentage of applicants to their field were admitted in order to get an idea of how selective it was. They also considered two other hypotheses: that women aren't able or willing to work as long hours as men; and that women are outnumbered mainly in fields that require more "systematic" thinking.


They used answers relating to these hypotheses to see if they could predict the levels of female representation in different fields, but found that their idea of the "brilliance" notion was best able to account for the results.

"Relative to other hypotheses in the literature, ours did a better, more comprehensive job in explaining why women are still underrepresented in some fields but have made tremendous progress in others," Cimpian told me.

What's more is that their hypothesis didn't just hold true for the representation of women in different fields, but also another underrepresented group: African-Americans. "Like women, African Americans are stereotyped as lacking innate intellectual talent," the authors wrote, referencing a s​tudy that looked at this racial stereotype. "Thus, field-specific ability belief scores should predict the representation of African Americans across academia." This was indeed the case.

There are no doubt many factors that contribute to low diversity in certain academic fields, from outright discrimination to internalised biases, and all manner of social influences. But if even part of it stems from this emphasis on the idea of natural brilliance, there's at least one easy way to combat the problem.

If you're a practitioner in a field with low numbers of women and African-Americans, the study authors suggest, why not emphasise the importance of other factors than natural talent? The role of hard work to get to the top, for instance.

"We expect that such easily implementable changes would enhance the diversity of many academic fields," they conclude.

xx is a column about occurrences in the world of tech, science, and the internet that have to do with women. It covers the good, the bad, and the otherwise interesting gender developments in the Motherboard world.