Women Deterred From Many Fields by Stereotypes of ‘Brilliance’

Women are discouraged from entering a broad range of academic fields -- from philosophy to physics -- that are perceived as requiring an innate brilliance they are led to believe they don’t possess, a study suggested.

The report, to be published in the Jan. 16 issue of the journal Science, found women were much better represented in fields where practitioners believed hard work was the main prerequisite for achievement. This was true not only in the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but also in fields as diverse as music composition and education.

Depictions in popular culture “link men but not women with raw intellectual brilliance,” Sarah-Jane Leslie, a professor of philosophy at Princeton University, who led the study, said at a news conference.

It’s not true that women lack intellectual ability, the study authors said, but they often suffer from unconscious stereotyping. “Even if a woman feels completely confident in her own ability, she may still be discouraged from participating in a discipline that sends these messages,” Leslie said. “She may be concerned that other people will view her as less suited to do high-level work.”

As a result, fewer women earn Ph.D.s or pursue academic careers in those areas. By contrast, bright women “are seen as spending long hours poring over books,” she said.

Women earned only 31 percent of philosophy Ph.D.s but 68 percent of those in education, according to 2012 numbers from the U.S. Digest of Education Statistics. Women were the majority of graduates in some STEM fields, such as molecular biology.

‘Genius’ Barrier

The authors tested their hypothesis that the demand for “genius” served as a barrier against three other common explanations for the gender gap: That women shy away from fields with long hours; that women simply lack the aptitude to perform well in some fields; and that women show less interest in or affinity for some fields that are dominated by men. None of those three hypotheses explained the variance by gender the way the “field-specific ability beliefs” hypothesis did, said Andrei Cimpian, one of the authors.

The study is consistent with the idea that women set the bar higher for themselves in their careers and in academia, said Jerry Jacobs, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania who studies gender issues. Though women earn the majority of undergraduate degrees, they have long been a minority in many of the sciences.

“Women tend to think they have to be the next Einstein before they become a physicist,” Jacobs said.

The study leaves some questions unanswered. Because the authors only interviewed professors and doctoral students who were already working in their respective areas, “it doesn’t explain what happened to the people who decided not to go into the field,” said Jacobs, who wasn’t involved in the research.

The study polled professors and Ph.D. students across 30 different academic disciplines.

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