Recently I wrote an article based on a study that was exploring the role gender stereotypes had on our careers. It was looking at how we perceive the lives of men and women. For instance, if we tend to see the man as someone that needs to earn lots of money, then it generally means we’re reluctant to see them working from home, or for women to obtain lofty positions in the workplace.
A similar exploration of gender perceptions has recently been undertaken to try and understand why it is that some academic fields are so bereft of women. The results were both fascinating and bewildering as they found that women tended to be significantly under-represented in academic fields where there was a perception of experts as geniuses. The authors suggested that this was down to a perception that women are incapable of being geniuses themselves.
The researchers spoke to over 1,800 academics across 30 disciplines at American universities. The study covered everything from the sciences to the arts to try and gain as broad a cross-section as possible. Each academic was asked what they thought was required to succeed in their field.
Now, the majority of them reported that things such as hard work and dedication were the main criteria. Others, however, suggested that an inbuilt genius was much more important. What’s more, the more common this latter perception was, the less likely it was that women would be a common feature of that field.
Interestingly, this genius requirement wasn’t linked at all to the relative difficulty of their field, with their generally being no greater barriers to entry in those fields than others that did not have this apparent genius requirement to them.
"This strongly suggests that women are not failing to pursue careers in certain fields because they are unable to meet the standards in order to participate in that field," the authors say. "So rather, there must be something else going on."
What does it mean to be a woman?
The researchers hypothesized that there are certain cultural ideas about what it is to be a woman, and especially what it is to be a talented woman. They suggest that this perception could be preventing them from thriving in certain fields, despite no apparent difference in intellectual ability between the sexes.
"Cultural associations link men, but not women, with raw intellectual brilliance," the researchers say. "To get a feel for this, we can consider, for example, how difficult it is to think of even a single pop-cultural portrayal of a woman who displays that same special spark of innate, unschooled genius as Sherlock Holmes or Dr. House from the show ’House M.D.,’ or Will Hunting from the movie ’Good Will Hunting.’"
The popular perception of intellectually gifted women instead portrays them as very hard working. Think, for instance, of Hermione Granger in Harry Potter. It creates the impression that when a woman accomplishes something; it’s down to long hours and hard work rather than any ’natural gifts’.
The authors believe their findings might go some way to explaining the persistent imbalance in certain academic fields, including the STEM subjects.
Interestingly, the authors suggest that this perception is not restricted just to women. They discovered that fields with a high genius requirement were also less likely to contain African American academics than other fields.
"Like women, African Americans are the targets of negative cultural stereotypes about their intellectual abilities," the authors reveal.
"It is important to be aware of the message we send to young people, including our students, about how one becomes successful in a field," they continue. "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, we might create an atmosphere that is equally attractive to men and women."
Of course, how to go about changing those perceptions is something that is very difficult indeed, but the first step is to understand that a problem exists. Hopefully over the coming years, this perceptual imbalance will begin to be redressed.