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Women are Underrepresented in Fields that Idolize Brilliance and Genius

Women are Underrepresented in Fields that Idolize Brilliance and Genius

Pervasive cultural associations link men but not women with raw intellectual brilliance. Consider, for example, how difficult it is to think of even a single portrayal of a woman who – like Sherlock Holmes, Dr. House, or Sheldon Cooper – displays that special spark of genius. Women who are portrayed as intellectually accomplished, like Hermione Granger and Agent Dana Scully, tend to also be portrayed as incredibly hard working and diligent. Women’s accomplishments are seen as grounded in long hours poring over books, rather than in some kind of effortless, natural gift.

As we show in a recent paper in Science (co-authored with Meredith Meyer of Otterbein University and Edward Freeland of the Princeton Survey Research Center), these cultural stereotypes have powerful implications for women’s representation across the spectrum of academic disciplines. To see why, it is important to understand the differences between disciplines in their members’ beliefs about what is required for success. If you talk to a psychologist, or a philosopher, or a physicist, you’re going to get different answers to the question of what goes into making a top achiever in their field. In some fields, success is viewed primarily as a matter of hard work and dedication, but in others success is seen as also requiring an unteachable spark of brilliance. Notably, these beliefs are shared to some degree by non-academics as well, particularly if they have taken a college class in the field.


We hypothesized that the stereotypes against women’s intellectual abilities would combine with these field-specific beliefs about what is required for success, resulting in women being less well represented in fields that idolize brilliance (see the diagram). To test this idea, we first conducted a large-scale, nation-wide survey of academics in 30 disciplines. We asked participants a variety of questions about their own disciplines, including questions about the extent to which they thought success requires that special spark of brilliance. As predicted, we found that women earned fewer PhDs in fields that emphasize the need for that sort of brilliance (see the scatterplot). In a subsequent paper, we also asked non-academics these questions and found the same pattern of results. scatterplot While much of the public discourse is focused on women’s representation in STEM – that is, natural science, technology, engineering and mathematics – these “brilliance required” messages actually predict women’s representation across the entire academic spectrum: not just in STEM disciplines (see the red data points in the scatterplot), but also in social science and humanities disciplines (see the black data points). Often, women’s representation in academic disciplines outside of STEM gets overlooked; that is, people assume that women are well represented in social science and humanities disciplines, but the reality is more complex than that. For example, in 2011, women earned 54% of PhDs in molecular biology, but only 31% of PhDs in philosophy. Being that one of us is a philosopher, it is of course very vivid to us that large gender gaps can be found outside of STEM subjects.

These field-specific ability beliefs – that is, beliefs about the extent to which brilliance is required for success in a particular field – were thus able to predict women’s representation across both STEM and non-STEM disciplines. In our survey of academics, we also included questions that were designed to assess three other hypotheses that have been put forward to explain women’s underrepresentation. Although these three hypotheses are prominent in the literature, in fact we found that none of them was able to account for gender gaps across the spectrum of academic disciplines. We didn’t find support for the idea that women don’t want to work long hours, for example, or for the idea that women are less brilliant than men, and therefore outnumbered in highly selective fields. We also didn’t find support for the idea that women are less analytical than men, and therefore outnumbered in fields that require systematic, rigorous thought. (Consistent with these conclusions, in separate analyses we found that academics’ ability beliefs predicted gender gaps above and beyond the average disaggregated GRE scores of a field’s applicants.)

In addition to documenting the relationship between women’s representation and field-specific beliefs about what is required for success, this research began to investigate some of the possible mechanisms by which these beliefs could actually influence women’s involvement. One possible mechanism involves bias rooted in gender stereotypes. Perhaps fields whose members are looking for a spark of genius are less likely to see it in their female students and colleagues, and as a result they may judge women as less capable of excellence in their field. Our findings supported this hypothesis. Fields that idolized brilliance judged women as less suited than men for the sort of scholarly work the fields required, and in turn these fields saw lower participation of women.

Although our study was designed to investigate gender gaps, it is worth noting that a field’s culture also predicted its African American representation. Those fields whose members felt that a spark of genius is required for success were less likely to include African American PhDs. 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. Current work is following up on this important finding.

To be clear, we are not arguing that brilliance doesn’t matter to one’s success. Our research isn’t about what one actually needs to succeed in a field. Instead, our findings suggest that if members of a particular field believe strongly in the importance of brilliance and convey that to aspiring members, they are likely to undermine participation by women and stereotyped minorities. So our argument is about how the culture within a field might influence the likelihood that members of stereotyped groups will participate in that field. We are also not arguing that members of these groups are less brilliant. In our reading of the literature, there is no convincing evidence that men and women, or different racial groups, differ intellectually in ways that would be relevant to their success across the 30 fields we surveyed. According to our hypothesis, underrepresentation is not the result of actual differences in intellectual ability but rather the result of perceived or presumed differences.

Practically, this research suggests it is important to be aware of the messages we send to young people, including our students, about how one becomes successful in a field. If we avoid labeling and categorizing others based on their perceived intellectual gifts, and instead emphasize what can be achieved with sustained effort and dedication, we might create an atmosphere that is welcoming to people regardless of gender or race.

Andrei Cimpian (@AndreiCimpian) is Associate Professor and Judy DeLoache Professorial Scholar of Psychology at the University of Illinois. Sarah-Jane Leslie is Class of 1943 Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University.

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