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Opinions About Raw Talent May Steer Women Toward Certain Academic Fields

Stereotypes that suggest men have certain natural talents that most women do not might be partly responsible for the distribution of gender across various fields of academia, researchers say in a new study.

Sarah-Jane Leslie from Princeton University and a group of American colleagues suggest that fewer women participate in disciplines that people perceive to require raw, or innate, talent — and that more women gravitate to fields in which empathy or hard work is perceived to be key. Specifically, the researchers found that women are less likely to obtain Ph.D.s in fields that people associate with concepts such as "genius" or "brilliance."

Andrei Cimpian discusses why women are less likely to take a Ph.D. in fields where "genius" is perceived necessary for success. | UI News Bureau

Their findings suggest that the representation of women in academia may generally reflect peoples' attitudes about what it takes to excel in a particular field. Although they are far from conclusive, their findings raise many new questions in the long-standing debate about why women are underrepresented in many science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

The researchers' findings are published in the 16 January issue of the journal Science.

The small team of researchers surveyed faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students from 30 different STEM, social science, and humanities fields at various public and private universities across the United States.

The researchers asked their study participants — 1,820 people in all — to rate their agreement with statements regarding their disciplines, such as, "Being a top scholar in my field requires a special aptitude that just can't be taught."

"When asked to consider what it takes to succeed, academics give very different answers depending on their chosen field," according to Leslie. "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, unteachable spark of brilliance."

Leslie and her colleagues observed that the academic departments deemed by survey participants to require natural talent, like economy and philosophy, also have lower percentages of women among their ranks.

They describe a new hypothesis — the field-specific ability beliefs hypothesis — and compare it to other hypotheses that propose, for example, that long work hours or differing interests may be responsible for women's underrepresentation. The researchers suggest that the field-specific ability belief hypothesis also may extend to African Americans, who face similar stereotypes.

"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, unteachable spark of brilliance."

Sarah-Jane Leslie

"Those fields whose members felt that a spark of genius is required for success were less likely to include African American Ph.D.s," said Andrei Cimpian, a co-author of the Science report from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "This finding is consistent with our hypothesis because, like women, African Americans are the targets of negative cultural stereotypes about their intellectual abilities — stereotypes that appear to discourage their participation in fields that idolize these traits."

"We are not arguing that brilliance doesn't matter. Our paper isn't about what one actually needs to succeed in a field," explained Cimpian. "Instead, our findings suggest that if members of a specific field believe strongly in the importance of brilliance and convey that to aspiring members, they are likely to undermine female participation."

"Consider, for example, how difficult it is to think of even a single pop cultural portrayal of a woman who — like Sherlock Holmes; Dr. House from the show House, M.D.; or Will Hunting from the movie Good Will Hunting — displays that special spark of innate, unschooled genius," said Leslie during a 14 January press teleconference. "Women who are presented as intellectually accomplished tend, like Hermione Granger, to also be portrayed as incredibly hard working and diligent."

"We are also not arguing that women are less brilliant than men," concluded Cimpian. "There is no convincing evidence in the literature that men and women differ intellectually in ways that would be relevant to their success in the fields we surveyed."

[Credit for associated teaser image: Flickr/Argonne National Laboratory]