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Women Said To Shun Disciplines Perceived As Requiring Innate Brilliance

Study may explain why fewer females enter many science fields

by Andrea Widener
January 19, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 3

Fewer women enter academic disciplines where innate brilliance is perceived as vital, a new research paper says. This conclusion, the authors say, might explain the gender gap in many science and humanities fields.

“We are not arguing that brilliance doesn’t matter,” explains University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, psychology professor Andrei Cimpian, one of two lead authors of the Science paper (2015, DOI: 10.1126/science.1261375). “Our argument is how the culture in a field will influence the likelihood that women will participate.”

The finding comes from a nationwide survey of 1,800 men and women graduate students, postdocs, and faculty in 30 disciplines; they were asked to analyze their own field. It goes beyond science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields to explain gender disparities in the humanities as well.

Cimpian and Princeton University philosophy professor Sarah-Jane Leslie examined the extent to which academics valued giftedness and then compared the results with the percentage of women in that field. Across the board, fields that highly valued innate talent were less likely to include women. Chemistry fell in the middle of the STEM fields regarding the perception of the need for brilliance.

The paper tests a hypothesis for which there had been mostly anecdotal evidence, says Jennifer Chayes, a scientist at Microsoft Research New England and a member of the National Academies’ Committee on Women in Science, Engineering & Medicine. “I welcome any attempt to try to understand this issue scientifically instead of just people drawing conclusions,” she says.

It opens up even more questions. “Is it that the participants are taking themselves out of the field?” she wonders. Or are those decisions being made by faculty, either intentionally or unconsciously.

The brilliance hypothesis, the researchers say, is better able to explain the gender gap than are several others they scrutinized, including the willingness to work long hours, aptitude, or a preference for disciplines that involve empathy, such as psychology.



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