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Cracking the Gender Gap: Why ‘Genius’ Fields Tend To Snub Women

Image: File photo of graduates from Columbia University's School of Journalism cheer during the university's commencement ceremony in New York

Graduates at Columbia University's School of Journalism. KEITH BEDFORD / Reuters file

The gender gap at American colleges cuts far wider than previously thought, extending beyond male dominance in the sciences — and that inequity is fueled by lingering stereotypes that men possess more raw intelligence, researchers reported Wednesday.

Misguided attitudes that men are more apt to be born “brilliant” and while women only aspire through hard work shape the gender gap, experts found. And the consequences, they added, are serious: less campus-wide diversity means less productivity and less originality flowing from U.S. schools.

"We found that women were indeed less likely to obtain Ph.Ds in fields that idolize brilliance and genius,” said Andrei Cimpian, a (male) University of Illinois psychology professor and who helped lead the new study published in Science.

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The team at Princeton University and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign surveyed nearly 2,000 faculty, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students in 30 academic disciplines nationwide, ranging from molecular biology to music composition.

Historically, areas of study simply dubbed STEM (for science, technology, engineering and math) are made up of a male majority. But Cimpian and colleagues noted 2011 data that finds women earned only 31 percent of the doctorate degrees in philosophy, also. For their study, they decided to look across an even wider academic spectrum.

“Even though the public discourse is focused on women’s representation in STEM, if you look at the distribution across different disciplines it varies greatly across the social sciences and humanities as well,” says Sarah-Jane Leslie, a philosophy professor at Princeton University who helped lead the study.

While they did not directly examine the eventual impact on the workplace, Leslie believes the academic gender gap likely occurs there, too.

“Any time you have an undertaking viewed as requiring a special innate talent, women are stereotyped as less likely to possess that innate talent and, therefore, we would predict that they would be underrepresented,” Leslie told NBC News.

Pop culture has not helped. On the big screen, genius men are often portrayed as being innately smart, never having had to work hard to gain their insights.

One weakness of the study is that it fails to take on the chicken-and-egg question surrounding the entire debate.

“Is it the attitudes that come first to keep women out, or do fields keep women out and then manufacture a reason afterwards?” asked Eileen Pollack, a professor of English at the University of Michigan. She’s writing a book about women in science to be published in the fall.

“The study really measures how confusing it is, in any field, to know what it takes to succeed,” Pollack told NBC News.

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Pop culture has not helped set the record straight, Leslie said. On the big screen, genius men are often portrayed as being innately smart, never having had to work hard to gain their insights.

“When women are represented as being intellectually accomplished it tends to be more like Hermione Granger (a strong female character in 'Harry Potter'). It's very clear her intellectual accomplishments are grounded in long hours poring over spell books rather than innate talent,” Leslie said.

So how do we fix stereotypes so deeply woven into the fabric of our culture and subconscious?

Teachers must change their messaging, Leslie and Cimpian said, about what’s required to reach classroom and professional success by showing students that hard work and education, not genius alone, are the roads to eminence in any field.

“Placing more emphasis on hard work and dedication rather than on raw innate talent may be a way of increasing women’s participation in those disciplines,” Leslie said.

Pollack agreed.

“The real lesson here is that there’s millions of ways that (our collective) lack of awareness about our own vulnerabilities to stereotypes perpetuates the system,” Pollack said. “Once you become aware of them and their falsity and aware of the benefit of overcoming them, it’s not that hard to change these stereotypes and to change the system," he added.

“For the individual and for society, the more diversity you have in a field means more ways of solving a problem, as well as more creativity and originality.”

The researchers also asked: Are women “unwilling or unable” to work long hours associated with some fields? And, is it possible that males truly are the more intellectually elite gender? Finally, they wondered if women might be more drawn to work that requires emotional thinking and human concern — and if men are apt to be more interested in work that requires abstract thought.

None of these other theories proved true, the study found.

Women were just as willing and able to work the long hours, men are not actually “more brilliant” than women, and women are not overrepresented in fields that emphasize empathy.

The researchers assessed this by asking participants questions about how many hours they spend working both in the office and off campus. They also asked them to rate how much emphasis their field places on identifying abstract principles or having a refined understanding of human thoughts and feelings.

For now, the researchers paint the gender-gap reality this way: People who work in fields that place emphasis on innate ability may doubt that women actually have this ability and may judge them on that basis And women may be just as guilty of this.

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