Women are less welcome than men in fields—including philosophy, physics, math, and music theory—where brilliance is viewed as more important than effort, says a Princeton University/University of Illinois group in Science.

The team “noticed a pattern I had never heard of: that certain humanities, especially philosophy [31 percent women], have far fewer women than certain STEM fields, like molecular biology [54 percent women],” Emory University anthropologist Melvin Konner told Bioscience Technology. The team followed this with "the rather brilliant insight that this might be due to preconceived notions about how much brilliance and insight—as opposed to hard, slogging scientific or scholarly work— it takes to succeed in those fields.”

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

In an upcoming W. W. Norton book, Konner (uninvolved with the new Science study) argues that certain historically “female” qualities are superior to historically “male” qualities, being more evolutionarily adaptive in a data-driven world.

“The under-representation of women in some academic fields is easily explained by bias—including such indirect bias as the [Science] authors show—combined with stereotype threat," Konner said. In stereotype threat, people can perform worse when a stereotype against their group is highlighted. "This has been repeatedly shown to impair the performance of women and girls simply by reminding them, even subtly, that someone thinks they are less good. These unfair forces have to be removed.”

The gender gap study

Princeton philosopher Sarah-Jane Leslie had long wondered about the gender gap she saw in many humanities and science fields. So she and University of Illinois psychologist Andrei Cimpian asked 1,800 experts in 30 disciplines: To be a “top scholar” in your field, do you need a “special aptitude that cannot be taught?”

Whenever the answer was “yes,” the field was under-represented by women. "The more a field valued giftedness, the fewer the female Ph.D.’s,” the team reported. Further, both men and women working in fields under-represented by women outright embraced the bias when asked whether they personally agreed with this statement: “Even though it’s not politically correct to say it, men are often more suited than women to do high-level work in [discipline].”

Sarah-Jane Leslie, Princeton University philosophy professorLeslie was taken aback by some of the results. Women earn 53 percent of Ph.D.s. And there is no difference in innate brilliance between men and women in the examined fields, her study found. Yet there can be major differences in perceptions of brilliance. “I was surprised at how extreme philosophy, my discipline, was in terms of emphasizing the need for raw brilliance,” she told Bioscience Technology. (As noted, philosophy, the field that most perceives itself as requiring brilliance, is 31 percent women. Other brilliance-demanding fields under-represented by women are: physics at 18 percent women; math at 29 percent; music theory at 16 percent; computer science at 19 percent. See list below.)

“I expected philosophy would be at that end of the scale, but I was surprised that it was the most brilliance-emphasizing discipline of all,” said Leslie “I was also surprised that none of three alternative hypotheses were able to predict gender representation across both STEM and non-STEM disciplines.”

The three alternate hypotheses proven wrong in the study were: women dodge careers associated with long hours; women are less brilliant; women aren’t interested in fields calling for analytical reasoning.

Leslie was also impressed by the degree to which field-specific ability beliefs “were able to predict gender gaps both across STEM disciplines, and across social science and humanities disciplines. Much of the public discourse is focused on women in STEM, but many social science and humanities disciplines have large gender gaps also. By focusing almost exclusively on STEM disciplines, we may miss important data points that contribute to understanding gender representation more generally, and I think these results made that vivid.”

Konner said he “never would have thought” to ask the questions the group “very insightfully” chose. “It turns out—after they tested their brilliant insight with a lot of hard, slogging work—nothing predicts the percentage of women in a field, whether scientific or humanistic, nearly as well as that one belief. Not the number of hours per week away from home, not the value of empathizing over systematizing, and not how selective the field is in choosing its graduate students, just ‘field-specific ability beliefs'....If [you as a practitioner] think some version of, ‘You really have to be some sort of genius to do well in philosophy or math or physics,' you are also likely to have very few women on board. And the most likely mediator is that you also think that women don't have that sort of genius.”

Konner noted the study made it clear that bias was the likely mediator by showing that the exclusion of African-Americans, including men, follows the same predictive pattern.Andrei Cimpian, University of Illinois psychology professor

“This doesn’t jibe with the notion that women's brains don't do philosophy or physics well, since there are no known racial differences in brain function. It’s much more consistent with the hypothesis of bias, however unconscious and indirect it may be,” Konner said.

Surprising molecular biology finding

Konner was surprised by another study finding: that molecular biology, which is majority female, is considered a “hard work” field.

“I've always thought of that as the most physics-like of biological sciences, an idea underscored by the fact that a number of founders of the field were former physicists,” said Konner. "When I read about Ada Yonath's scientific process, which led this Israeli woman to share the 2009 chemistry Nobel for figuring out the three-dimensional structure of the ribosome with crystallography, I see something like the process Watson and Crick (and Rosalind Franklin) used to arrive at the structure of DNA. Both processes required giftedness and insight and what Yonath calls a `Eureka!’ moment. Both seem to me to have more in common with physics and engineering than with the kind of human biology I practice. Not that there wasn't hard work involved.

Continued Konner: “Or look at Linda Buck's process in deconstructing the hugely complex—yet in the end, exquisitely elegant—odorant receptor gene code. This won her a share of the 2004 Nobel in medicine or physiology. Likewise the work of Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider, who shared, with Jack Szostak, the 2009 medicine prize, for figuring out how telomerase works, requiring deeply insightful thinking as well as long, hard work.”

"Woman teaching geometry" Illustration at the beginning of a medieval translation of Euclid's Elements (c. 1310 AD) (Credit: British Library)When anthropologist Ashley Montagu wrote about the “natural superiority of women” in the late twentieth century, Konner said, he listed the women Nobelists and “noted that they did all their science on a very tilted playing field, against much greater odds than were faced by male competitors. This was still true when Yonath, Buck, Blackburn and Greider were coming up. `May it not be,’ Montagu asked, `that women are just about to emerge from a period of which the opportunities and encouragements were simply not available?’"

Konner said Leslie’s study reminded him of the remark that “in the famous dance team, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but on high heels, going backward.”

NIH immunologist Polly Matzinger is the architect of a provocative theory of immunology called the “danger theory.” She is both surprised—and not—that women as well as men harbored some of the bias unearthed in the study. Women in science can be multitaskers on many levels, she notes. They can consider themselves both brilliant and hard-working—while constantly questioning their own worth.

“I often think that women shoot themselves in the foot. For example, I have been told by people on grant committees that grants tend to be awarded to women and men in roughly the proportions with which they apply. But when men are rejected, they resubmit their grants with the modifications the committee asked for, whereas women tend to go lick their wounds and don’t resubmit. So overall, women receive fewer grants than men do," Matzinger said.


One potential remedy is to start telling brilliant girls and women they are just that, far more often. But, Leslie told Bioscience Technology, “I don't think it’s as simple as telling individual brilliant girls and women that they’re brilliant, since the stereotypes are so pervasive. Even if a woman herself is completely confident in her own abilities, she may nonetheless face increased bias and discrimination in ‘brilliance required’ fields as a result of others in her field having internalized these stereotypes. Our study found that fields that emphasized the need for raw brilliance were more likely to endorse the claim that women are less well-suited than men to be top scholars in the field, and that such fields are less welcoming to women. So it isn’t just a matter of individual women needing to ignore these stereotypes, but also a matter of the more general culture of these fields being inhospitable to women in a variety of respects.”

A better approach may be to change expectations in fields that value “brilliance” over work. Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck showed that “everyone—regardless of gender, age, background—benefits from placing more emphasis on the importance of hard work and dedication, and less emphasis on innate talent. In this way, fostering academic cultures with less focus on raw brilliance has the potential to benefit all students, in addition to increasing diversity,” Leslie said.

Cautioned Matzinger: "Yes, but if the emphasis on 'hard work' goes too far, what of those scientists who think a lot (which is hard work, but doesn't show), and who may be -- and usually are -- the ones who will be founders of new fields and new paradigms? What if they get thrown out along the way because they don't 'work hard' enough?"

Regardless, the issue needs addressing, said Konner. “The playing field has to be leveled. Then we will see what women can do. If the pioneers we have seen so far, working against heavy odds, could accomplish what they did, it is likely that future women will prove no less gifted than men—and quite possibly more."

The numbers

The percentage of women in 30 fields, ranked in the order with which those fields value brilliance over hard work, most to least: 1) philosophy: 31 percent women 2) math: 29 percent 3) music theory: 16 percent  4) English literature: 62 percent 5) physics: 18 percent  6) economics: 34 percent 7) classics: 42 percent 8) engineering: 22 percent  9) computer science: 19 percent 10) comparative literature: 61 percent 11) biochemistry: 45 percent 12) astronomy: 29 percent  13) statistics: 42 percent 14) chemistry: 38 percent 15) Middle East studies: 38 percent

16) Spanish literature: 60 percent 17) evolutionary biology: 50 percent  18) art history: 77 percent 19) linguistics: 59 percent 20) political science: 43 percent  21) history: 45 percent 22) molecular biology: 54 percent  23) neuroscience: 49 percent 24) communications: 64 percent 25) sociology: 61 percent 26) archeology: 52 percent 27) earth science: 36 percent 28) anthropology: 60 percent 29) psychology: 72 percent 30) education: 69 percent