Who’s the Genius Around Here?

manwomanraceWhat does it take to be a creative physicist? A successful philosopher? A psychologist? Does it take a special ability, an aptitude that can’t be taught? Or do you believe many people could accomplish those things, given time and effort? Does it matter?

A recent study reported in Science suggests it might. Researchers Leslie, Cimpian, Meyer, and Freeland wondered if the ways scholars think about different disciplines might affect how men and women engage in those fields. So they asked more than 1800 faculty, post-doctoral fellows and graduate students from 30 disciplines about their own experiences in their fields, and what they believed was necessary to succeed in their area.

It turned out that “field specific ability beliefs” varied considerably. That is, some fields were seen to need more “special stuff”—more brilliance, aptitude, or particular abilities—than others. And here’s the important part: The more scholars believed that innate “stuff” was necessary for success, the fewer women were found in the field. Women were more broadly represented in fields seen as requiring “hard work.”

What does this mean? Are women just less smart? (As the Washington Post report suggests, is this the difference between brilliant Sherlock Holmes and hard working Hermione Granger?) No, there was no evidence that scholars in fields with many women were less bright or the programs less selective. Those fields were simply thought to require less native ability.  And, equally disturbing, a similar pattern was found with African American scholars, regardless of gender. Where giftedness was perceived to be essential, fewer African American scholars were found. Education, a field with large representations of both women and African Americans, was seen to require the least  ability of all.  Those patterns seem unlikely to be coincidence.

It seems perceptions of needed brilliance are a barrier to women and African American scholars in particular fields, particularly the STEM areas.

So what are we to do? The authors suggest that “academics who wish to diversify their fields might want to downplay talk of innate intellectual giftedness and instead highlight the importance of sustained effort for top-level success in their field” (p.265). But those of us who teach outside universities have a role, too. This seems yet another reason to teach students about the importance of mindset, and nurturing their belief in the power of their own efforts. Perhaps particularly for girls and students of color, that may be a more important message than anything coming up on the next standardized test.


Leslie, S., Cimpian, A., Meyer, M., & Freeland, E. (2015, January 16).Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines. Science, 347 (6219), 262-265. [DOI:10.1126/science.1261375]

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