Attitude, not aptitude, may contribute to the gender gap

An emphasis on brilliance might influence how many women end up in an academic field

male scientist in foreground, two women scientists in background

A new survey suggests that beliefs about the raw talent required for an academic field may relegate women to the background.


Academia used to be a man’s world. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, from anthropology to zoology, the halls of the ivory tower were filled with men. Some even believed that women simply couldn’t live up to the intellectual demands of academic life. But over the past few decades, women have proved their mettle. More than half of molecular biology degrees and 60 percent of comparative literature degrees now go to women. But in other fields, such as physics, philosophy and political science, the question still remains: Where are all the women?

It might have to do with the culture in those fields, especially a culture that emphasizes the belief in raw, innate talent. Results of a new survey show that the more academics in a field believe their area of study requires an ability that “just can’t be taught,” the fewer women there are in those fields. While the finding might explain in part why women may feel less welcome in physics as opposed to psychology, it doesn’t rule out many other contributing factors. But no matter what the cause, it is clear that some fields are long overdue for a change in attitude.

Princeton philosopher Sarah-Jane Leslie and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign psychologist Andrei Cimpian became interested in gender representation in fields that emphasize talent versus fields that emphasize work while discussing the difference between psychology and philosophy. Comparing notes about their fields, they noticed that philosophy tended to emphasize the need for “raw inherent brilliance,” while psychology emphasized hard work and dedication.

They also noted the drastic difference in gender representation between the two disciplines. In philosophy, fewer than 35 percent of Ph.D.s are awarded to women, while in psychology, women take home more than 70 percent of the terminal degrees. These numbers are similar to other fields in science and in the humanities. In physics less than 20 percent of Ph.D.s go to women, whereas women receive more than 50 percent of the degrees in molecular biology. In the humanities, art history skews heavily female with almost 80 percent female Ph.D.s, while in music composition, women earn a truly dismal 15 to 16 percent. Leslie and Cimpian began to wonder whether the emphasis on brilliance versus hard work might be related to the gender gap.

The pair hypothesized that academic fields that tend to hammer home the point of “genius,” such as physics and math would have fewer women than fields that emphasize dedication and effort, such as art history or education. The reason has to do with stereotypes. There is an assumption that men are more likely to have higher intelligence than women. If women internalize this stereotype, they might steer clear of academic fields that emphasize brilliance over hard work.

The authors sent surveys to 28,210 academics in 30 different science, technology, engineering and math fields and the social sciences and humanities. Only 6.5 percent of recipients sent in their surveys (a possible testimony to the busy lives of academics), giving the researchers 1,820 samples to work with.

Those surveyed responded to statements such as “If you want to succeed in [discipline], hard work alone just won’t cut it; you need to have an innate gift or talent,” and “With the right amount of effort and dedication, anyone can become a top scholar in [discipline].” They ranked statements on a Likert scale from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.” 

The survey compared the researchers’ hypothesis to other potential explanations for under-representation of women in academic fields. One hypothesis, for example, is that women will not or cannot work the long hours required for certain academic fields. So the survey asked respondents to list their work hours both on- and off-campus.

Another is that there are gender differences at the highest end of the intelligence scale. If this were the case, fields which are extremely selective should have more men than women. To address this, the authors asked about acceptance rates for Ph.D. students in the participant’s field, and compared GRE scores available for grad students in different disciplines.

Finally, they examined the hypothesis that men and women might differ in how they think. If men are better at abstract thinking and women are better at emotional understanding, fields that require more systematic and abstract thinking might end up with fewer women. So the authors included statements assessing how much participants thought thinking abstractly or emotional understanding  was important in their academic field. 

The expectation of brilliance in a field was associated with how many women were in those fields, Leslie, Cimpian and their collaborators report January 15 in Science. Areas such as music composition had a higher emphasis on brilliance — and a very low number of women. Areas such as anthropology, on the other hand, had a lower emphasis on innate talent and a higher percentage of female Ph.D.s. Men and women showed no difference in how they ranked their fields. The results were not limited to women. The authors found the same association in a secondary study for African-Americans, who also face stereotypes about intellectual ability.  

As Cimpian notes, it’s not aptitude at stake, it’s attitude. “We’re not saying women [or African-Americans] aren’t brilliant or can’t succeed in a field that requires brilliance,” he said in an interview. “It’s the culture of the field that undermines representation because of stereotypes.”

The study shows an association between the belief in the need for genius in an academic field and the numbers of women in that field. But to answer whether beliefs about the need for brilliance make women avoid certain fields will take further study.

And the scientists were asking a very short series of specific statements to test a single hypothesis and compare it to three others. It is always possible that other interpretations and other explanations exist. Cimpian notes that beliefs about the need for brilliance will not be the whole story. “This isn’t the be-all-end-all for women’s representation [in academic fields],” he says. “There are other factors that contribute to whether women are going to participate in the field or not.” Issues such as harassment in the work environment or lack of flexibility in scheduling to make room for childcare can still play a large role in whether women pursue and remain in some academic areas.

Culture and convention play an important role not only under-representation, but also in the theories scientists develop about why under-representation occurs, notes Joshua Aronson, a social psychologist at New York University. “In the 1960’s there were very few women in psychology,” he notes, referencing a previous 2009 chapter he wrote on stereotype threat. “And if you walked down the halls of psychology departments, you could hear men talking smugly about how women were ill-suited to psychology. Now, more than 70 percent of Ph.D.s in psychology are given to women. And now we hear people say it’s a woman’s field, and women are well suited to psychology. The theories and explanations arise in part to justify current practice.”

Leslie and Cimpian’s study addressed this issue as well, with statements such as “Even though it’s not politically correct to say it, men are often more suited than women to do high‐level work in [discipline].” The authors found that fields with fewer women and higher emphasis on personal brilliance also tended to harbor beliefs about how suited women might be to the work.

The results of the current study highlight the importance of academic culture. “I think there’s sort of an assumption in the field of people who study women in STEM that somehow the women are the problem,” says Andrew Penner, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine who wrote a perspective accompanying the new study. “‘If we could just get women to behave more like men that would solve the problem.’ But it’s not a great assumption. If you tell someone that this is men’s work or women’s work, it shapes people’s preferences about it.”

It’s long past time to change the culture in some disciplines. Leslie notes that academic fields that want to increase the representation of women “may want to examine the culture they have about how much brilliance influences success.” Instead of mentioning the spark of genius in class, Leslie explains, “emphasize to students the importance of working hard.” She also notes that faculty might share personal anecdotes of struggle and challenges they have faced in the field.

Even casual phrases might be important. “A professor may make an offhand comment, but it can resonate with fears that women are feeling,” Aronson notes.

While emphasizing the role of hard work could be an equalizer, pointing out equal abilities might also help shatter the stereotypes, one woman at a time. I spent my middle and high school years convinced that I just didn’t have the gift for math. In college, I began studying logic and the philosophy of math as part of my philosophy major. I was instantly captivated and spent long hours curled up on couches in coffee shops with the works of Wittgenstein and Russell. And one day, one of my professors said, “you’re really good at this. You must have a talent for math.” We could all use a change in culture, but maybe we could also all use a little bit of brilliance.

Bethany was previously the staff writer at Science News for Students. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology from Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

More Stories from Science News on Science & Society