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My Brilliant Career? The Troubling Reason Why Women and Blacks Avoid “Genius” Fields

February 12, 2015
by Stacy Finz
Photo of a female professor

It’s no secret that women have been underrepresented in the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics—but music composition, philosophy and even classical studies?

Although the later subjects appear to be as a disparate from the STEM disciplines as Mozart and Thales, they have one thing in common, says a new study released by Princeton and the University of Illinois. People think that hard work isn’t enough to excel in these subjects—what’s required is a stroke of genius. Here’s the rub: Innate brilliance is a characteristic we tend to stereotypically associate with white males more than anyone else, even though there is no evidence to prove that it’s true.

The study, published in the journal Science, found that African Americans are also more likely to shy away from fields perceived to require raw intellectual talent, not because they are any less brilliant than their white male counterparts, but because they tend to believe they’re not as smart.

“It’s the fixed mindset that either you’ve got it or you don’t,” says Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, an associate professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and former director of the university’s Greater Good Science Center. “The idea that intelligence is genetic and can’t be changed has become prevalent in American culture.”

In fact, fe­males were far bet­ter rep­res­en­ted among Ph.D.s in mo­lecu­lar bio­logy than philo­sophy.

So if white males are considered more likely to be prodigies who “have it”—and women and African Americans not—it’s no wonder we’re seeing fewer women and blacks going into fields believed to be reserved only for brainy people and high-analytical thinkers. At least that’s what the Princeton/Illinois study suggests.

So not only are women and African Americans veering away from lucrative and influential careers, but these fields are losing out on the diverse perspective that they would otherwise bring to the table. “We’re missing a good swath of the population,” Mendoza-Denton says. “If you’re gifted or have a natural propensity toward something, you’re going to find it. But it’s easier to find without the impediment of gender or race.”

Graph showing field specific ability beliefs

Researchers, headed by Princeton philosophy professor Sarah-Jane Leslie and University of Illinois psychology professor Andrei Cimpian, surveyed more than 1,800 academics from 30 different disciplines and found that while women are getting more than 70 percent of the Ph.D.s in art history and psychology, they are earning fewer than 20 percent of the Ph.D.s in computer science and physics, and fewer than 35 percent of the Ph.D.s in economics and philosophy.

As for STEM fields—often cited as bereft of sufficient representation from women and certain minorities? The study revealed a more nuanced picture: Women were more likely to be attracted to molecular biology, neuroscience, environmental biology and earth science, for example, than they were to astronomy, math or engineering. In fact, females were far better represented among Ph.D.s in molecular biology than philosophy.

The researchers hit upon the idea for the study at a conference when the topic of women’s representation in philosophy came up. “Philosophers tend to emphasize the need for raw brilliance much more than psychologists do. We had that contrast between these two disciplines, and we wondered if that might not extend more broadly to others,” Leslie explained as the study was published. “We wanted to expand the domain beyond STEM. These ‘brilliance required’ messages actually predict women’s participation across the entire academic spectrum, including social sciences and the humanities.”

Even at UC Berkeley, a progressive university, the astrophysics faculty webpage shows 18 men and no women or blacks. The philosophy department’s webpage shows 19 male faculty members compared to five women. Electrical engineering and computer science is one of the largest departments at Berkeley, yet its faculty page showcases a sea of men. Department chairs often say they do their best to recruit a more diverse faculty, but such candidates in some fields are frankly few and far between.

The study hypothesizes that fields such as art history and psychology seem to embrace women and emphasize that all it takes to be successful in the discipline is hard work. Subjects such as economics, philosophy and music composition, conversely, focus more on innate brilliance, perhaps sending a subliminal message that only naturally gifted people need apply.  Or as the study states: “The practitioners of disciplines that emphasize raw aptitude may doubt that women possess this sort of aptitude and may therefore exhibit biases against them.”

“If you’re told over and over again that people like you aren’t good at something, you start ex­clud­ing your­self from the field.”

And predictably enough, people on the receiving end of those biases start to internalize them. “If you’re told over and over again that people like you aren’t good at something, you start excluding yourself from the field,” says Jack Glaser, associate dean of Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, who specializes in racial profiling. He found the study results to be no surprise; instead he was reminded of the early work of Claude Steele, executive vice chancellor and provost of UC Berkeley, showing how stereotypes could sabotage scholastic performance in extremely subtle ways. One of Steele’s studies showed how women’s math scores declined after they were asked to check a gender box—the box itself a blatant reminder that they weren’t supposed to be good at mathematics.

The idea that women are physiologically predisposed to be worse at math than men lacks scientific proof. In fact, in 2008 Janet Hyde, professor of psychology and gender and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Marcia Linn, professor of education at UC Berkeley, examined data from SAT scores and 7 million state assessment tests of students from all grades. The gender difference they found in math? Zilch.

Glaser says the stereotype is rooted in years and years of persecution to keep women and minorities in their place.

Portrait of a professor

“Just look at all the Saudi Arabian men who wouldn’t shake Michele Obama’s hand,” he says, pointing to the President and First Lady’s recent trip to the Middle East. “Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein, but initially published it anonymously.”

Historically, the method by which Africans were abducted from their homeland and brought to the United States in slave ships served to galvanize the worst stereotypes, Glaser says, and that legacy of humiliation and discrimination hardly encouraged blacks to regard themselves as  naturally brilliant. “They were told they were stupid, animals and chattel,” he says. “For a long time it was systematic. Now it’s more subtle.”

There are, of course, other factors that influence how likely women and minorities are to pursue particular careers in particular fields. And once again, stereotypes come into play. Take, for example, what Victoria Plaut, professor of law and social science at UC Berkeley School of Law, calls “ambient belonging”—the idea that environmental cues can determine whether a person feels like he or she fits in.

The cues can be as subtle as office decor. When Plaut was at the University of Georgia in 2009, she and colleagues at the University of Washington and Stanford published a study showing that just by neutralizing a room, they could change a woman’s interest in a field. In this case it happened to be computer science.

First they polled students on their perceptions of computer scientists. Geeky, physically unattractive, socially awkward, sci-fi fans, people who “dreamt in code” and ate junk food were among the stereotypes. Those images, even if inaccurate, were career turn-offs to women who felt as if they would not fit into such a male milieu. Researchers determined this by introducing the subjects to two different office environments. The first office included a Star Trek poster on the wall, a pyramid of Coke cans on the table, and a stack of sci-fi books on the desk. In the second office, researchers switched out the Star Trek poster for nature art, neutralized the books, and replaced the Coke cans with water bottles.

Photo of someone's desk

“Women in the non-stereotypical room were more attracted to computer science,” Plaut says. “The stereotypical room’s objects signaled cues of masculinity. In some cases the women couldn’t even remember what was in the room. They just knew that it made them feel like they wouldn’t fit in.”

Taking the research further, they told student subjects to imagine that they were looking for a job and asked them to choose between two fictional companies. The students were told that both firms employed the same number of men as women and paid the same salary. Then the researchers went on to describe the objects in each company. The first had junk food, video games, comic books, tech magazines and Star Trek posters. The second had art posters, water bottles, general interest magazines and nature photos. Women overwhelmingly chose the second company, deciding that the first company, despite employing as many women as men, felt too masculine.

These insights into why women and minorities may eschew particular career paths only adds to a growing body of evidence that internal and external stereotypes are damaging in the workplace. Last year Laura Kray, a Haas School of Business professor, released her findings that women are more likely to be lied to than men during a business transaction. In her study of some 300 students pursuing masters’ degrees from Haas, 24 percent lied to female negotiators during the course of role playing to close a deal. Only 4 percent lied to men. The bottom line: Women exude less confidence in negotiations and are therefore perceived as less competent.

Many schools are mak­ing a con­cer­ted ef­fort, as early as the fourth grade, to get rid of the mind­set that in­tel­lect is in­nate and fixed.

“People aren’t even aware that they hold these beliefs,” Kray says, adding that the latest Princeton/Illinois study makes you wonder: “How many people do we know that have unrealized potential?”

It’s not as depressing as some might think, Plaut says. It may not be as easy as redecorating a room, she acknowledges, “but it does show that there are things we can do to empower women and promote inclusiveness.”

These days, many schools are making a concerted effort, as early as the fourth grade, to get rid of the mindset that intellect is innate and fixed. Instead they emphasize that intelligence can grow with study and hard work.

As for that stroke of genius? “Maybe we’ve all got it,” says Mendoza-Denton, “and we just need to keep working on it.”

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