A 'Brilliant' New Theory on the Gender Gap - Pacific Standard

A 'Brilliant' New Theory on the Gender Gap

A new study suggests the gender disparities in academia come from how much a field values raw talent.
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(Photo: Haley Marshall/Flickr)

(Photo: Haley Marshall/Flickr)

Despite a collective IQ in the millions, academia has yet to solve its odd gender gap problem.

The trouble is, the gender disparity in academia is not so clear-cut. In some STEM fields like neuroscience, half of all Ph.D.s went to women. But in physics or computer science they’re outnumbered five to one. Similarly, women dominate the psychology field, but are outstripped in economics. A new study published today in Science suggests one factor that might explain these gender disparities: how much a field values raw talent.

“When asked to consider what it takes to succeed, academics give very different answers depending on their chosen field,” Sarah-Jane Leslie, a professor of philosophy at Princeton University and lead author on the study, said in a press briefing yesterday. “In some fields, success is viewed primarily as a matter of hard work and dedication, but in others, success is seen as requiring a special, un-teachable spark of brilliance.” This, coupled with society’s tendency to associate brilliance with men and not women, can tip the gender balance in academic fields.

Women who internalize negative stereotypes about ability are less motivated to enter fields that value talent over hard work. And if the leaders of those fields believe women in general possess less raw talent, the end result is fewer women in "brilliance-required" fields.

To test this theory—what the authors call the field-specific ability beliefs hypothesis—they asked 1,820 academics across 30 disciplines to rate what qualities were necessary for success in their fields. They found that disciplines that valued genius over dedication had fewer females across the board.

“While much of the public discourse is focused on women’s representation in STEM ... these 'brilliance required' messages actually predict women’s representation across the entire academic spectrum: not just in STEM disciplines, but also in social science and humanities disciplines,” Leslie said.

The researchers looked into three other hypotheses that have been proposed to explain the gender disparities in some academic fields: That women avoid fields that require long hours, that women lose out in competitive fields, and that less women go into fields that require systematic and abstract thinking. While beliefs about ability correlated with the number of women across every single discipline, not all fields that required long hours or abstract thinking, or those considered more selective, had fewer women.

The study also found that the number of African American Ph.D.s in a field correlated with a field’s beliefs about natural ability. African Americans, who often suffer from the same negative stereotypes about ability and intelligence as women, were under-represented in the same fields as women.

How do beliefs about what it takes to make it in a field translate to an under-representation of certain groups in academia?

Women who internalize negative stereotypes about ability are less motivated to enter fields that value talent over hard work. And if the leaders of those fields believe women in general possess less raw talent, the end result is fewer women in “brilliance-required” fields.

But there's good news, too. The research suggests a first step toward closing the gender gap: changing how a field is marketed to young students. Academics that value diversity in their fields should highlight the role of hard work for success rather than raw talent.

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