“Raw Intellectual Talent” and Academia’s Gender and Race Gaps

“Raw Intellectual Talent” and Academia’s Gender and Race Gaps


Cultural beliefs and stereotypes that associate men but not women with “raw intellectual talent” can help explain the differing gender gaps across various academic disciplines, according to a new study by Sarah-Jane Leslie (Princeton), Andrei Cimpian (Illinois, Urbana-Champaign), Meredith Meyer (Ottterbein), and Edward Freeland (Princeton) published today in Science. A similar account appears to explain racial disparities in academia, as well.

In short, “the more a field valued giftedness, the fewer the female Ph.D.’s” And guess which field values giftedness the most?

The authors begin by noting certain data on gender and academia:

Recently, women have earned approximately half of all Ph.D.’s in molecular biology and neuroscience in the United States, but fewer than 20% of all Ph.D.’s in physics and computer science. The social sciences and humanities (SocSci/Hum) exhibit similar variability. Women are currently earning more than 70% of all Ph.D.’s in art history and psychology, but fewer than 35% of all Ph.D.’s in economics and philosophy. Thus, broadening the scope of inquiry beyond STEM fields might reveal new explanations and solutions for gender gaps.

Their explanation for the pattern of gender gaps—why some disciplines are dominated by one or another gender—is ultimately that, for a number of reasons, disciplines that are thought by their practitioners to require “fixed, innate talent” for success may be inhospitable to women. They write:

Individuals’ beliefs about what is required for success in an activity vary in their emphasis on fixed, innate talent. Similarly, practitioners of different disciplines may vary in the extent to which they believe that success in their discipline requires such talent. Because women are often negatively stereotyped on this dimension, they may find the academic fields that emphasize such talent to be inhospitable. There are several mechanisms by which these field-specific ability beliefs might influence women’s participation. The practitioners of disciplines that emphasize raw aptitude may doubt that women possess this sort of aptitude and may therefore exhibit biases against them. The emphasis on raw aptitude may activate the negative stereotypes in women’s own minds, making them vulnerable to stereotype threat. If women internalize the stereotypes, they may also decide that these fields are not for them. As a result of these processes, women may be less represented in “brilliance-required” fields.

The authors made use of data from a large study of U.S. academia and compared their view, which they refer to as the “field-specific ability beliefs hypothesis,” to others involving longer work hours, gender distribution at the high-end of aptitude, and the extent to which the different fields require systematizing versus empathizing. They report:

Our findings suggest that the field-specific ability beliefs hypothesis, unlike these three competitors, is able to predict women’s representation across all of academia, as well as the representation of other similarly stigmatized groups (e.g., African Americans)…

Like women, African Americans are stereotyped as lacking innate intellectual talent. Thus, field-specific ability belief scores should predict the representation of African Americans across academia. Indeed, African Americans were less well represented in disciplines that believed giftedness was essential for success.

Might it be that natural brilliance is indeed more important in certain disciplines than in others? The authors write:

The data presented here are silent on this question. However, even if a field’s beliefs about the importance of brilliance were to some extent true, they may still discourage participation among members of groups that are currently stereotyped as not having this sort of brilliance. As a result, fields that wished to increase their diversity may nonetheless need to adjust their achievement messages.

Are women and African Americans less likely to have the natural brilliance that some fields believe is required for top-level success? Although some have argued that this is so, our assessment of the literature is that the case has not been made that either group is less likely to possess innate intellectual talent (as opposed to facing stereotype threat, discrimination, and other such obstacles)…

They suggest:

Academics who wish to diversify their fields might want to downplay talk of innate intellectual giftedness and instead highlight the importance of sustained effort for top-level success in their field. 

You can see from the charts at the top where philosophy is. More than any other discipline, philosophers place the greatest emphasis on brilliance, or innate, intellectual talent in their assessment of what is required for success in the discipline. Also, philosophy has among the fewest women PhDs (only four other disciplines have fewer—engineering, computer science, physics, and music composition) and a below average number of African-American PhDs.

Related Links:
– Video of Sarah-Jane Leslie discussing these findings.
Commentary on the study by sociologist Andrew M. Penner (UC Irvine).
– A FAQ sheet for the study.
– The study’s supplementary materials, including further data and information, including the questions asked and individual answers. (Thanks, Kenny.)

UPDATE: Coverage at The Chronicle of Higher Education,  The Washington PostReutersand Smithsonian Magazine.

UPDATE 2 (2/4/15): Alison Gopnik discusses the study in the Wall Street Journal.

(image: charts from “Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines” by Sarah-Jane Leslie et al)

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