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College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences

Department of Psychology

Psychology Matters

Diversity Matters

storageBy Daniel Storage, PhD
Teaching Assistant Professor

 

 

 

 

A recent article in the New York Times reported that, in 2013, parents were two and a half times more likely to Google questions such as "Is my son gifted/intelligent/a genius?" than ones such as "Is my daughter gifted/intelligent/a genius?" (Stephens-Davidowitz 2014). In one of my own research studies, I searched through the language used by students in over 14 million reviews on the popular teacher evaluation website www.RateMyProfessors.com. Specifically, I searched for the number of times that students described their professors as "brilliant," "genius," and so on, and found that—in every field—male professors were described as intellectually gifted significantly more often than their female colleagues (Storage, Horne, Cimpian, & Leslie, 2016). Importantly, I found that male and female professors were described as "excellent" and "amazing" to an equal extent—pointing to a bias specific to superlatives about intelligence, rather than an overall bias against women. These striking findings are indicative of a pervasive, but understudied, cultural stereotype: Women are, on average, believed to possess less intellectual talent than men.

In addition to being problematic in and of itself, this "brilliance = men" stereotype may be part of the reason why women are underrepresented in STEM fields. Recent research suggests that practitioners in STEM fields are likely to endorse the belief that raw "brilliance" is necessary for success in those fields (Leslie, Cimpian, Meyer, & Freeland, 2015). If girls grow up in a society that believes (1) that brilliance is necessary for success in STEM fields, and (2) that they are less likely than men to possess such brilliance, they may be less likely to pursue careers in STEM. Consistent with this possibility, I have found that fields with practitioners who endorse the idea that "brilliance" and "genius" are necessary traits for success tend to have significantly fewer women (and other groups, such as African Americans) earning degrees (Storage et al., 2014 and Leslie et al., 2015).

So, what can we do about it? Two possibilities follow from my research. First, an ideal solution would be to eliminate the stereotype associating intellectual giftedness with men over women, which would make field-level "brilliance-required" messages irrelevant. Second, rather than emphasizing traits that put certain groups at a disadvantage (i.e., brilliance and genius), teachers should emphasize traits that anyone can possess with the right amount of effort (e.g., hard work and dedication). It is likely the case that these traits are more important for success anyway.

References

  • Bennett M. (1996). Men's and women's self-estimates of intelligence. J. Soc. Psychol.
  • Bennett M. (1997). Self-estimates of ability in men and women. J. Soc. Psychol.
  • Kirkcaldy B., Noack P., Furnham A., Siefen G. (2007). Parental estimates of their own and their children's intelligence. Eur. Psychol.
  • Leslie S.-J., Cimpian A., Meyer M., Freeland E. (2015). Women are underrepresented in disciplines that emphasize brilliance as the key to success. Science.
  • Stephens-Davidowitz, S. (2014) Google, Tell Me. Is My Son a Genius? New York Times;
  • Storage, D., Horne, Z.,Cimpian A., & Leslie, S.J. (2016) The Frequency of "Brilliant" and "Genius" in Teaching EValuations Predicts the Representation of Women and African Americans across Fields. PLoS ONEPLoS ONE 11(3): e0150194. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150194
  • Upson S., Friedman L. F. (2012). Where are all the female geniuses? Sci. Am. Mind 23 63–65 10.1038/scientificamericanmind1112-63