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'Looking for Brilliant Minds' Translates as 'Women Need Not Apply'

New research finds the stereotype that intellectual genius is a male trait can dampen females' interest in certain jobs or fields of study.
Archived image of a female scientist.

The recent sexual harassment scandals provided a reminder that the workforce of Silicon Valley is overwhelmingly male. High-tech companies—along with other employers in science-related fields—insist they would like to hire more women, but have trouble recruiting them, and they seem baffled as to why.

New research offers at least a partial answer. It reports prospective female employees are turned off by ads and recruitment pitches that declare firms are looking for brilliant minds.

"When certain fields or jobs are linked to intellectual talent or brilliance—which is seen as a masculine trait in our culture—women's interest declines," senior author Andrei Cimpian, a New York University psychologist, said in announcing the findings.

"Signaling that one's field, job, or company is only for the most brilliant people out there may inadvertently turn away many qualified people that happen to belong to groups that our society deems less than brilliant."

The notion that geniuses are usually men—and women are awkward outliers in brilliance-based enterprises—is pervasive in our culture. Stanford University psychologist Lin Bian, lead author of the new study, offered evidence last year that "these stereotypes are endorsed by, and influence the interests of, children as young as 6."

In this latest research, Bian, Cimpian, and their colleagues examined whether such beliefs deter women from pursuing certain educational and professional opportunities. Writing in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, they describe six experiments that provide evidence they do indeed.

In the first, 199 university undergraduates were asked to evaluate an internship program, and report how interested they would be in applying for a spot.

"Participants were shown the top characteristics ostensibly mentioned by representatives of the company during their interviews," the researchers write. "These were either brilliance-related ("intellectual firecracker," "at ease with complex, abstract ideas," "sharp, penetrating mind") or dedication-related ("great focus and determination," "passionate about the job," "someone who never gives up").

The researchers report women were less interested in applying if they read the version emphasizing brilliance. However, men were equally interested no matter which description they read.

This pattern was also found in follow-up experiments, including several in which participants evaluated a new college major. And it was not limited to the STEM fields.

"When women were told that a new major in the social sciences and humanities was particularly suited for brilliant people, they displayed less interest in this major, anticipated feeling more anxious, and were less confident they would belong than when women heard that this major was suited for people who were dedicated," the researchers report. "In contrast, men were not affected by this manipulation."

Overall, the experiments—including two featuring post-college adults who read variously worded job descriptions—establish a clear pattern. "Women were less sure of success in brilliance-oriented settings, and believed they were dissimilar to the type of person who commonly works in these settings," the researchers write. "In turn, these judgments predicted feelings of stress and anxiety, as well as a diminished sense of belonging."

Who wants to work in a high-stress field where you don't belong?

The results offer clear guidance for institutions that are serious about attracting more female employees. "Deemphasizing the role of brilliance in achieving success may reduce the impact of the cultural prototype of the 'brilliant person' on women's interest and involvement," the researchers conclude.

Even for professions that require serious smarts, "explicitly linking success to raw intellectual aptitude is likely to discourage participation by women because—despite being as intellectually capable as men—women will nevertheless interpret such messages through the lens of the current stereotypes."

A long-term answer will require puncturing this pervasive form of prejudice—which would be a perfect project for the currently chastised entertainment industry. So, HBO, how about an all-female spin-off of Silicon Valley?