The dearth of women in math and science may get all the attention, but in many social science and humanities fields, their numbers are just as low.
Looking more broadly across academia, researchers have uncovered a new reason why female participation might be lower in particular subjects: cultural beliefs about brilliance.
“Women are stereotyped as not having that same special spark of genius as men,” said Sarah-Jane Leslie, a professor of philosophy at Princeton University.
To find out if those beliefs could explain the underrepresentation of women, Leslie and her co-author, University of Illinois psychologist Andrei Cimpian, surveyed more than 1,800 grad students, post-docs, and professors across 30 disciplines, asking them how much their field required innate talent.
Publishing today in the journal Science, they found that women were less likely to have obtained doctorates in disciplines in which academics said raw brilliance was very important. Similar results were found for African-Americans.
While the correlation does not prove that such stereotypes are holding women back, Leslie said, they did not find evidence to support several competing theories, including women’s aptitude and interest or desire to work fewer hours.
“A particular woman might doubt whether she herself has the ability required to succeed if she’s internalized that stereotype,” said Leslie.
Even if a woman is completely confident, she said, those attitudes could creep in and make certain fields less hospitable.
The good news, Leslie said, is the findings point to quick and easy ways to begin narrowing the gender gap, beginning with professors avoiding adjectives such as “brilliant” or “gifted.”
“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,” said Cimpian, “we might create an atmosphere that is equally attractive to men and women.”