A study has found that women and African Americans are under-represented in fields that prize natural genius

When natural ability is considered crucial to an academic field, there's less diversity in that field

In America, as in many countries, women and African Americans are victims of negative stereotypes regarding intellect. In academic fields where natural “brilliance” and “genius” are thought to be crucial, surveys have found that there are fewer women and African Americans doing PhDs. Is this proof that women and African Americans lack natural ability since there are fewer of them in those fields? Or is there another explanation?

To investigate this further, researchers at the University of Illinois used a new method to measure whether “brilliance” and “genius” are prized attributes in a given field. They compared fields by counting the frequency of the words “brilliant” and “genius” being used in reviews of professors on RateMyProfessors.com. The website has over 15 million reviews  across all fields, giving the researchers a great way of investigating the relationships between diversity and how people view the importance of natural genius in a given field.

The method was able to accurately predict if a field had fewer than average women and African Americans doing PhDs. If a field had more uses of “brilliant” and “genius” in reviews of professors, those fields reliably had less women and African Americans. This doesn’t suggest that the stereotypes are accurate. What it suggests is that there’s a relationship between the perceived importance of natural ability in a given field and the level of diversity. Women and African Americans are known to face negative stereotypes regarding intellect within many fields.

If a field is more likely to be associated with requiring natural genius, it’s also likely to be less diverse than other fields. This tells us less about the natural ability of entire groups of people and more about sexism, racism, and the effects that stereotypes have on people’s careers. The researchers found that the genius-requiring fields had fewer women and African Americans at earlier stages in education such as during bachelor’s degrees. The students aren’t dropping out before they have the chance to reach PhDs; the stereotypes are putting women and African Americans off even starting in some fields. This could help explain why we see worse levels of sexism in some male-dominated fields than others.


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