The Trouble with Brilliance

Words by Andrei Cimpian

illustration of andrei cimpian

Architecture and engineering are both fixated on the idea of genius. Could this be the source of their gender imbalance? The Possible spoke to psychologist Andrei Cimpian about the implications of a roundbreaking piece of research

Why are there so few women in some professions, while very similar ones may be far more diverse? Mystified by the discrepancy in their closely related fields, psychologist Andrei Cimpian and philosopher Sarah-Jane Leslie suddenly had a brainwave: could it be something to do with their very different ideas of success? Cimpian and Leslie wondered whether philosophy’s emphasis on brilliance — the superstar with an exceptional mind — acted as a “keep out” sign to people less likely to think of themselves, or be thought of, as brilliant. To see if there was a relationship, they surveyed almost 2,000 academics in 30 fields — and were blown away by the results. Not only did the idealization of genius strongly predict female participation at both PhD and undergraduate level, it was also more predictive than many other popular explanations for gender gaps, such as the extent to which a field relies on mathematics or demands long work hours. (On the scatterplot they produced, engineering sits near physics and computer science, with genius relatively prized and less than 25% of PhDs awarded to women.)

They were even more stunned to discover that the discrepancy was already present in children who had barely begun their education: by the age of six, girls were less likely than boys to associate being “really, really smart” with their gender, and less interested in activities for really smart children.

The Possible wondered whether this hypothesis might help to explain the persistent under-representation of women in architecture and engineering — both professions in which a powerful mythology surrounds the almost exclusively male leading lights …

The Possible: So what’s happening here? Why should an emphasis on brilliance keep women out?

AC: The other component is that our society associates these traits with men more than women. So it’s the combination: the extent to which fields emphasize that you need to be brilliant to succeed, and societal stereotypes that associate high-level intellectual ability with men more than women.

We’re actively investigating how these combine to lower women’s participation. For example, you can imagine that women themselves might become less interested in these fields, both because they’ve internalized some of these stereotypes and because they think others might not see them as qualified.

I’ve recently published a paper looking at men and women’s interest when job or internship opportunities are described as requiring brilliance. That could also be relevant to how architects or engineers advertise positions to potential job candidates.

TP: So they might say, “we want brilliant people to join our team” or something like that?

AC: Exactly, and the data show that once you start talking about a job like that, women lose interest. It’s not that they’re inherently less interested in these jobs, they’re less interested because they’ve grown up in a society that sends certain messages about who has high-level intellectual ability.

Of course there are also mechanisms such as bias and discrimination, when people evaluate others on the basis of the little information that goes into a job file or PhD application. These are complicated decisions. If you’re looking for brilliant people, this is exactly the kind of amorphous, ambiguous context where stereotypes might come into play. So you might evaluate men’s files as being superior to those of women.

Graph percentage of women in architecture measuring the pipeline through the profession

Percentage of women in architecture: measuring the pipeline through the profession

TP: But surely talent is important?

AC: Some people might feel uncomfortable downplaying the role of talent, but it’s important to understand that the moment you start talking about talent as being paramount for success, because of the stereotypes that we’re all marinating in, some of your students or junior colleagues more than others, will feel like they don’t have what it takes.

People can get defensive and say, “when I look at talent I don’t see men, I don’t see women, I don’t see white, I don’t see black”, but that’s much easier said than done. We can’t help seeing these differences and often we’re not aware of factoring this demographic information into our assessment. It’s a slippery slope from talking about individual differences in talent and brilliance, to having a field where there are group-level differences in the extent to which people feel valued and welcomed and encouraged.

TP: How can you show this is a cause, rather than just a correlation?

AC: That was one of our goals in the paper that I just mentioned, where we randomly assigned men and women to read different job ads and saw that women’s interest was undermined by talk of brilliance. Those were experiments, which allow us to make claims about causation.

In the original study [published in Science], which was not an experiment, we tried to rule out plausible alternative explanations. We asked participants a number of other things about their fields, such as how many hours a week one puts in, both on and off campus. So maybe in some fields you need to spend a lot of time on campus, in a lab perhaps, and that might be more of an obstacle to women. The idea being that women have a different preference for a work-life balance, probably in part because women still have to carry the brunt of child rearing. But we didn’t actually find that the number of hours that one has to spend on campus was predictive of women’s representation.

Another variable we measured is how selective a field is — what proportion of PhD applicants were accepted. Assuming for the sake of argument that men are more intellectually gifted than women, then you should find that more selective fields have more men in them. We didn’t find that either.

“You can imagine these beliefs exacerbating as you move up the ranks — the brilliance bar becoming higher and higher, and fewer and fewer women being perceived as meeting it”

TP: Or could selectivity make a field more accessible to women by removing an element of prejudice…?

AC: That’s an interesting one. Actually, when we looked at that variable there wasn’t a significant relationship — but the relationship was in the direction of fields that are more selective having more women in them. We also wondered whether some fields were more selective because they had bigger pools of candidates but perhaps they weren’t as high quality as others. So we also adjusted for the average GRE score, the standardised test that people take when applying for a PhD. That didn’t really change any of the conclusions either.

TP: How could we find out if this mechanism is at work in other fields, such as architecture?

AC: We could look at the messages about architects and brilliance — whether there is a sense that some people just have a gift and those are the ones who become the leading architects of our time. You could do a study of the language used in job ads or by looking at letters of recommendation for a particular job, and seeing whether there are messages that are more likely to be negative for women. There is some research suggesting that there are differences in the language used in letters of recommendation, where men are described as “groundbreaking researchers likely to make the next big discovery”, whereas the women are described as “solid workers”, even when their achievements are quite comparable on paper.

TP: You focused on academia, but could the same mechanism be at work in professions and companies?

AC: Yes, I believe so. There isn’t anything specific about the mechanisms that we’ve identified that would limit their application to academia. In fact, psychologists Mary Murphy and Carol Dweck have done similar work at the level of organizations. When an organization describes itself as focusing on talent and fixed innate traits, that changes how members of the organization present themselves and the extent to which they feel comfortable failing. These are exactly the kinds of mechanisms that would work differently across genders.

TP: How might this influence diversity at different levels within an organization?

AC: We don’t yet have the evidence for that. But you can imagine these beliefs exacerbating as you move up the ranks — the brilliance bar becoming higher and higher and fewer and fewer women being perceived as meeting it. More generally there are other things that present obstacles to women’s participation. As you move up through the ranks, that often coincides with beginning to have a family and unfortunately these are things that still fall more on women’s shoulders than on men’s. So [the brilliance hypothesis] needs to be supplemented with awareness of other structural constraints that might impede women’s progress.

One project that I hope will be published in the next year or so looks at career switches. We find that when you look at what careers women switch in and out of, you find these beliefs about brilliance are a better predictor than many other variables. Women, more so than men, are likely to switch from a field that emphasises the need for brilliance more, and to fields that emphasise it less. So that could be one of the ways in which certain fields end up with fewer and fewer women.

TP: What do you think we need to do differently to improve diversity?

AC: This is the big question and we haven’t yet tackled it head on. I do think the messages that we send to young people are really important. Changing those is an easy first step towards making the environment more welcoming. We were stunned at how early some of these beliefs set in. So if you want to intervene with college age students or graduate school age students, these are individuals who may have held some of these noxious beliefs since the time they were in elementary school.

TP: So what can we do about that? Should we talk to children differently or explain our professions to them in a different way?

AC: So the extent to which we convey to children from a young age that success is more a matter of how much time they spend with the subject matter, the strategies they come up with, the advice they get — these concrete things that they have control over — the more likely they are to be buffered against these sorts of stereotypes about who has innate ability and who doesn’t.

Exposure to role models, examples of successful people that are like them, could also be a protective factor. But the role model has to be made relatable to the children — research shows that not a lot of girls are motivated by people like Marie Curie because she has two Nobel Prizes and that feels unattainable to a lot of mere mortals. The more similar the role model is, the more the children can fill in the steps from where they are to where they could be in the future.

TP: Could cultural attitudes to brilliance explain differences in the level of female participation in certain fields around the world? For example, in the US, assertiveness is good, whereas in the Nordic countries, it’s less socially acceptable to claim to be better than anyone else — and they are ranked as the most gender-equal in the world. Could there be a link?

AC: Yes, it’s really important to take culture into account when thinking about these issues. It is possible that cultures differ in the extent to which they associate brilliance with men, as well as in terms of which fields and occupations they believe to require brilliance. The beliefs that are at the core of our hypothesis are cultural products, so in our current work we are really interested in exploring what shape these beliefs take around the world.

Andrei Cimpian is an associate professor of psychology at New York University

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