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This trio of theoretical physicists at Fermilab doesn’t reflect the gender imbalance in many STEM fields.

This trio of theoretical physicists at Fermilab doesn’t reflect the gender imbalance in many STEM fields.

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Belief that some fields require 'brilliance' may keep women out

Certain scientific fields require a special type of brilliance, according to conventional wisdom. And a new study suggests that this belief, as misguided as it may be, helps explain the underrepresentation of women in those fields.

Sparked by sharing anecdotes about their personal experiences in fields with very different gender ratios, a team of authors, led by Andrei Cimpian, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and philosopher Sarah-Jane Leslie of Princeton University, surveyed graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty members at nine major U.S. research institutions. Participants rated the importance of having “an innate gift or talent” or “a special aptitude that just can’t be taught” to succeed in their field versus the value of “motivation and sustained effort.” The study, published online today in Science, looked across 30 disciplines in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, the social sciences, and the humanities.

The authors found that fields in which inborn ability is prized over hard work produced relatively fewer female Ph.D.s. This trend, based on 2011 data from the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates, also helps explain why gender ratios don’t follow the simplified STEM/non-STEM divide in some fields, including philosophy and biology, they conclude.

“That’s what’s particularly cool” about the study, says Janet Hyde, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “It’s a single framework that explains all of those data.”

Cimpian, Leslie, and their co-authors say that their analysis considered other factors believed to depress female representation in academia, including women having different academic preferences and working fewer hours than men, and found them to be much less significant than the field’s believed importance of genius. Only 6.5% of the 28,210 academics who were contacted provided usable data. But the authors say they corrected for that single-digit response rate, which they note is typical for surveys of academics, by weighting the respondents’ scores. Although female respondents emphasized hard work over brilliance more than did male respondents, the authors say that a “gender-balanced” score for each discipline’s belief in the importance of genius also predicted gender differences in the various fields.

The authors suggest that faculty members and graduate student instructors convey their attitudes to undergraduates, who internalize them before making career decisions. Given the prevailing societal view that fewer women than men have special intellectual abilities, they speculate, female students may feel discouraged from pursuing advanced degrees in fields that consider brilliance crucial. Male students, on the other hand, will not experience this same feedback, leading to a gender disparity in the discipline.

The study investigates gender distribution and field-specific beliefs only at a single point in time, and the results do not address how female representation in certain fields, in particular the life sciences, has risen dramatically in the past 50 years. However, the authors predict that the rates at which women have gained footholds in different fields may be related to how much these fields emphasize the importance of genius.

The results do not speak to the actual extent to which brilliance might be required for success in various fields or whether men and women have different intellectual capacities, the authors emphasize. “The argument is about the culture of the field,” Cimpian says. “In our current cultural climate, where women are stereotypically seen as less likely to possess these special intellectual gifts, emphasizing that those gifts are required for success is going to have a differential effect on men and women.”

He and his colleagues also conclude that their findings help explain why African-Americans are underrepresented in STEM professions while Asian-Americans are not. “That’s another line of evidence that supports the gender data and that this a real phenomenon,” Hyde says.

The authors recommend that academics wanting to increase the diversity of their field should try to downplay the importance of innate ability for success. “More emphasis on the concrete steps that one can take to become a productive member of the field would probably be welcome,” Cimpian says. 

Expressions of positive expectations can significantly improve achievement levels, notes psychologist Virginia Valian of Hunter College in New York City. “It’s good for every field to stress the role of effort and motivation,” she says.

Although the authors do not argue that this single measure explains all the variation seen between fields, some researchers believe that the study has not sufficiently considered other possible reasons. Donna Ginther, an economist at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, suggests that the extent to which a field is math-intensive -- a topic she has explored -- is one such factor. On the other hand, some researchers note that philosophy is not mathematically intensive, and thus that factor would not be expected to affect career choices.

“It’s not perfect,” Valian says of the authors’ study, “but they did an impressive job with the measures that are available. I think it’s a really good first step.”

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