US academic fields that cherish 'spark of genius' shun women

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 January, 2015, 8:32am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 January, 2015, 8:32am

For academic fields whose members revere a "spark of genius" above all other qualities, there is a disquieting message at US colleges and universities: women need not apply.

That's the findings of research that sought to get to the bottom of why women are under-represented in a range of academic disciplines including some in science and maths but also in other areas such as philosophy.

The researchers surveyed 1,820 graduate students, post-doctoral researchers and faculty members in 30 academic disciplines at public and private institutions around the United States. They were asked to identify the attributes needed to succeed in their academic fields, which spanned natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, engineering and others.

The fields whose members said they most valued sheer intellectual brilliance such as philosophy, physics and maths were the most likely to have fewer women in their ranks. The disciplines in which the "spark of genius" was least emphasised such as education, psychology and anthropology had greater numbers of women.

"The problem lies not with women's aptitude but rather with the 'brilliance required' attitude," said Princeton University philosophy professor Sarah-Jane Leslie, who led the study with University of Illinois psychology professor Andrei Cimpian.

When those in certain disciplines sent the message that raw, inherent brilliance was required for success, such views combined with existing cultural stereotypes to suppress women's participation in the field, Leslie added.

Cimpian said the researchers were not arguing that women were less brilliant than men or that brilliance did not matter.

"The reason for this pattern of results is that our society associates men, but not women, with brilliance," he added. "We found that women were indeed less likely to obtain PhDs in fields that idolise brilliance and genius."

The researchers said the findings, appearing in the journal Science, seemed to debunk three other hypotheses on the gender gap in academic fields:

  • that women really were less brilliant than men;
  • that women were unwilling or unable to put in the long hours some fields required;
  • or that men were more suited to fields requiring abstract and systematic thinking while women were more suited to pursuits requiring empathy and emotional understanding.

The survey focused on gender gaps but unearthed racial issues as well, finding that the fields that covet brilliance also had lower numbers of black participants.