Study Finds Large Gender Gap in Academic Fields Where “Brilliance” Is Revered

A new study led by researchers at the University of Illinois and Princeton University found that women tended to be underrepresented in academic disciplines where practitioners place a lot of emphasis on academic brilliance, such as mathematics, physics, and philosophy.

The researchers surveyed a large group of graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, and faculty members in 30 academic disciplines. They asked participants to list qualities that were essential to success in their field. The researchers hypothesized that stereotypes of women’s inferior intellectual abilities may explain why they are underrepresented in fields that idolize brilliance.

sanders_35_croppedThe lead author of the study is Sarah-Jane Leslie, the Class of 1943 Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University in New Jersey. Professor Leslie joined the Princeton faculty in 2006. She is a summa cum laude graduate of Rutgers University in New Jersey and holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University.

According to Professor Leslie, the more a discipline emphasized the importance of raw brilliance rather than hard work and dedication, the lower the number of women earning doctorates in that discipline. For example, molecular biology viewed hard work as a very important component of success, and women earned approximately 50 percent of all Ph.D.s in that field in 2011. In contrast, physics saw raw brilliance as much more important, and women earned fewer than 20 percent of Ph.D.s in 2011. “Statistically speaking, we found a highly significant correlation between ‘brilliance required’ outlooks and women’s representation across the totality of 30 disciplines,” said Dr. Leslie.

Professor Leslie concludes that “the study’s findings suggest that academics who wish to address the gender gap in their fields should pay particular attention to the messages they send concerning what’s required for success. For example, they can downplay talk of innate intellectual giftedness and instead highlight the importance of sustained effort for top-level success in their field.”

The article, “Expectations of Brilliance Underlie Gender Distributions Across Academic Disciplines,” was published in the journal Science. It may be accessed here.

Filed Under: Research/Study


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