Science, Tech & Environment

Is the notion of 'innate genius' widening science's gender gap?

This story is a part of

Across Women's Lives

This story is a part of

Across Women's Lives

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Is the idea of ''innate brilliance'' contributing to the gender gap in the sciences?

Academic fields that value ‘'innate brilliance’' more highly than qualities like hard work and persistence have fewer women than men, a new study shows, suggesting that this mindset could play a part in the current science gender gap.

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Researchers surveyed scientists and other academics and found that the fields which rated raw talent or innate brilliance more highly than other abilities had fewer women earning PhDs.

Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychologist who is widely known for her work in this area, says the results, published in the journal Science, don’t surprise her. Dweck did not participate in the study.

“The researchers had the dazzling insight that a whole field could have a mindset: a whole academic discipline could believe that success requires innate brilliance. Or it could believe, on the other hand, that it requires hard work, dedication, sustained engagement over time,” Dweck says. "They then had the more dazzling insight that this could explain underrepresentation of women in various fields. They found a very strong relationship: the more a field believed you must have this inherent ability to succeed, the fewer women were in that field. And it wasn't just in the hard sciences. It's also true in social sciences and humanities.”

But it isn't true across the board, Dweck points out. Molecular biology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology — rigorous fields that require extensive of training — all have about equal numbers of men and women. For the most part, the people in those fields don't subscribe to the idea that innate genius determines success.

“Yes, there's ability involved, but they emphasize more the dedication, the growth of your ability through hard work,” Dweck says.

''High brilliance'' fields included math and physics. Even more extreme than these was philosophy, which is not a science. Music composition also has more of the ‘innate genius’ view and fewer women practitioners. Ironically, the fields that rate high on the sheer genius scale also rated their fields as less welcoming to women.

Does this mean that the people who work in these fields don't believe women can have innate brilliance? It’s a little more insidious than that, Dweck believes.

“When you think something is about innate genius, then you think you can judge it,” she says. “You can take a group of people and you can tell them, you have it, you don't have it, you have it, you don't have it.” In the high brilliance fields women are not encouraged to believe that success is due to “a way of thinking, a way of analyzing ideas and issues, and the more you're in it the better you become at it,” Dweck says.

Dweck's own research shows “there are lots of women, incredibly qualified women at the most selective universities, who are extremely interested in math and science — at first.” But then too often they are told, sometimes very early on, that they just “don’t have it,” and are discouraged from pursuing their studies more deeply or at a higher level.

Dweck says this attitude doesn’t apply just to academic disciplines. “It applies to tech industries; it applies to financial industries. In economics, women are pretty much underrepresented. As soon as you think ‘this is a genius field, only geniuses need apply,’ you're already creating under-representation. And by the way, not just of women, but minorities as well.”

The good news is that the research suggests changing the message women hear when entering an academic discipline can have a positive effect.

“If they got a message that this a welcoming field, that people can develop their abilities…that these are ways of thinking, ways of analyzing that can be grown over time, women and minorities would enter those fields, I believe, in greater numbers,” Dweck explains. “So this is a wonderful research project for the future.”

This story is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday with Ira Flatow