Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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© 2017 by Idan A. Blank

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Going Into Your Mind

The Brain, Revealed. Cutting-Edge Research. For Everyone.


You probably think – I myself mentioned it last time – that women academics are simply under-represented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM fields, like physics), but are well represented in social sciences and humanities (SSH fields, like psychology). Think again: some STEM fields have lots of women PhDs, and some SSH fields have too few. For instance, in 2011, 54% of PhDs in molecular biology (STEM) were women, but only 31% of PhDs in philosophy (SSH) were women. The issue of sexist discrimination in academia is not just a “STEM vs. SSH” conflict. What could explain, then, why some fields have more women than others?


Recently, a team from Princeton University and the University of Illinois (U-S) set out to answer this question. They surveyed 1,800 faculty members, post-docs and graduate students from 30 disciplines at multiple, high-profile universities and tested several hypotheses.


First, some people seriously think that women are not willing or able to work long hours. So the researchers asked each participant: How many hours do you / others in your field spend working on and off campus? It turns out that higher workload is not associated with women under-representation. The fields requiring long hours are not those that have fewer women PhDs.


Second, some people believe that while men and women have generally similar skills, many more men are “superstars” compared to women; in other words, if you only look at students with, say, high GRE scores, you’ll find more men than women. Following this logic, women should be under-represented in fields that are more selective – those fields like math that admit to their programs very few of their applicants. Less selective fields, like art history, should have more women. However, the researchers found that higher selectivity of a field is not associated with women under-representation. If anything, there might be more women PhDs in selective fields.


Third, some people have suggested that women may be under-represented in fields that emphasize abstract thinking (like statistics), but well represented in fields where what matters is the ability to understand other people’s thoughts and feelings (like literature). Therefore, each participant had to rate the extent to which their field involved “identifying abstract principles” vs. “recognizing or responding to people’s mental states”. The results showed that higher emphasis on abstract thinking is not associated with women under-representation. The emphasis on abstract thinking only explained the “trivial” observation that there are more women in SSH than in STEM, but it could not explain the surprising differences across different STEM fields (more women in neuroscience, less in physics) or across different SSH fields.


Finally, the researchers asked each participant how important innate, raw talent and brilliance were in their field. Participants rated statements like “being a top scholar in my field requires a special aptitude that just can’t be taught; hard work alone just won’t cut it” vs. “With the right amount of effort and dedication, anyone can become a top scholar in my field”. The study found that fields where practitioners believe that innate talent is the main requirement for success are those fields where women are under-represented. So, fewer women in computer science (STEM) and philosophy (SSH), where we believe having a “gift” is highly important; and more women in neuroscience (STEM) and education (SSH), where we believe hard work to be enough.


This association between beliefs in raw talent and women under-representation was very strong (r = -0.6). Even when we ignore SSH fields and only consider different STEM fields, this belief in innate brilliance explains why some fields have fewer women than others; and the same is true for ignoring STEM fields and only looking at SSH fields.


Academics who believed that an innate gift was critical in their field admitted that “even though it’s not politically correct to say it, men are often more suited than women to do high-level work in my field”. They also rated their own fields as less welcoming to women. So, it seems that women are negatively stereotyped as lacking innate, raw talent, which explains why they are under-represented in fields that place a strong emphasis on such talent.


To link these data to my last post, the results hold even if only women academics are surveyed, ignoring the data from men who participated in the study.


Interestingly, the same association hold among African-American academics: fields where practitioners place more importance on an innate gift have less African American PhDs, arguably because this group is also stereotyped as lacking raw talent and relying more on hard work. However, there is no association between belief in raw talent and the representation of Asian-Americans in academic fields, because this group is not stereotyped in the same way (if anything, many appear to hold opposite beliefs, such as “Asian Americans are just good at math, it’s a gift”).

MY TWO CENTS: as much as I hate “survey studies”, I have to admit that this one is almost as good as it gets. The authors seem to have analyzed their data in multiple ways that all support their conclusion, and have controlled for several alternative explanations of their results. So I’ll just cite their conclusion: “Our data suggest that 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”.

CITATION: Leslie, S.J., Cimpian, A., Meyer, M., & Freeland, E. (2015). Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines. Science347(6219), 262-265.

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