In U.S. academia, fields that cherish sheer genius shun women

Thu Jan 15, 2015 5:20pm EST
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By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For academic fields whose members revere a "spark of genius" above all other qualities, there is a disquieting message at U.S. colleges and universities: women need not apply.

That's the findings of research published on Thursday that sought to get to the bottom of why women are under-represented in a range of academic disciplines including some in science and math but also in other areas such as philosophy.

The researchers surveyed 1,820 graduate students, post-doctoral researchers and faculty members in 30 academic disciplines at public and private institutions around the United States. They were asked to identify the attributes needed to succeed in their academic fields, which spanned natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, engineering and others.

The fields whose members said they most valued sheer intellectual brilliance such as philosophy, physics and math were the most likely to have fewer women in their ranks. The disciplines in which the "spark of genius" was least emphasized such as education, psychology and anthropology had greater numbers of women.

"The problem lies not with women's aptitude but rather with the 'brilliance required' attitude," said Princeton University philosophy professor Sarah-Jane Leslie, who led the study with University of Illinois psychology professor Andrei Cimpian.

When those in certain disciplines send the message that raw, inherent brilliance is required for success, such views combine with existing cultural stereotypes to suppress women's participation in the field, Leslie added.

Cimpian said the researchers are not arguing that women are less brilliant than men or that brilliance does not matter.

"The reason for this pattern of results is that our society associates men, but not women, with brilliance," Cimpian added. "We found that women were indeed less likely to obtain Ph.D.s in fields that idolize brilliance and genius."   Continued...

Graduates from Columbia University's School of Journalism cheer during the university's commencement ceremony in New York in this May 16, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Keith Bedford/Files