December 1, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Anne Petzold looks at research into why gender gaps are different for different academic disciplines
1931 photograph of physics nobel prizewinners (front, left to right: Albert A. Michelson (1907), Albert Einstein (1921) and Robert A. Millikan (1923))

The #DistractinglyUnSexy gender gap in academia

Why do some academic disciplines attract strikingly fewer women than others? The gender gap is not specific to STEM fields. While 70 % of arts PhDs are female, only 30 % of economics PhDs are, and only 20 % of PhDs in physics go to women.

Two recent psychology studies contended that these field-specific gender gaps may be due to beliefs about “raw innate talent”, or intellectual brilliance, as required to succeed in that particular field.

The brilliance bias

Reflecting on the gender gap in their respective fields, philosopher Sarah-Jane Leslie (philosophy: 30 % female PhDs) and psychologist Meredith Meyer (psychology: 70 % female PhDs) noticed that their fields put strikingly different emphasis on the importance of “raw brilliance” vs. hard work and persistence to succeed: while you need to be a genius as a philosopher, a psychologist might do a decent job by just working very hard.

The relationship between FABs (all participants) and female representation (Study 1)  fpsyg-06-00235-g002 1024w
The relationship between Field Ability Beliefs (all participants) and female representation (taken from Ref. 2)

Leslie and Meyer tested their “field-specific ability beliefs hypothesis” (FAB) via questionnaires on paper, by phone, and online. The first study [ref. 1] surveyed how important scientists in 30 academic disciplines rated “raw innate talent”, or “brilliance”, as a crucial requirement in their field, and related these ratings to the percentage of female PhDs. Overall, this survey quite clearly revealed that fields with a high expectation of “brilliance” accommodate fewer women. This is true for arts, headed by brilliance-requiring philosophy (30 % female PhDs) and music composition (15 % female PhDs) and trailed by ‘mellow’ psychology and education (70 % female PhDs). This relationship also holds for STEM, headed by brainy maths (30 %) and physics (20 %) and trailed by ‘soft’ neuroscience and molecular biology (50 %).

Decisions about entering a particular academic field are often made long before encountering actual academics and their beliefs. Thus, the second study [ref. 2] took FAB into a wider context, the realm of lay people’s attitudes about the different disciplines. Attitudes about the importance of brilliance vs. effort seem to persist: again, ‘male’ fields such as math, physics, engineering, and music composition were regarded as ‘brilliance-requiring’, while ‘female’ fields such as literature, art, and psychology were rated low on the brilliance scale. In a side twist, among lay people, fields with a strong female record were rated higher on the brilliance scale as long as they belonged to the STEM cluster, e.g., molecular biology.

What makes brilliance, however? Well, to allow some backwards reasoning, fields with higher female representation – usually the ‘effort-requiring’ fields – were believed to require verbal skills, while fields with low female representation – the ‘brilliance-requiring’ fields – were thought to require mathematical skills, but also more solitary work and competitiveness

So fields that hold firm beliefs about the importance of giftedness over dedication, maths over words, and solitary competition over collaboration, accommodate fewer women than fields where success is thought to require mainly hard work and persistence.

A self-fulfilling prophecy

The effect of stereotype threat (ST) on maths test scores for girls and boys. Data from Osborne (2007)

Strikingly, the brilliance bias does not only (partly) explain the gender gap in academia, but also (partly) the distribution of PhDs awarded to African Americans, which follows a similar pattern: the number of PhDs awarded to African Americans in perceived ‘brilliance-requiring’ fields is much lower in comparison to White Americans and Asian Americans. These findings indicate that women and African Americans are subject to a similar stereotype threat in this regard.

Stereotype threat is the danger of unconscious identification with a negative stereotype which reinforces living up to that negative expectation – a negative self-fulfilling prophecy.

In fact, just stating your ethnicity on a test sheet can decrease performance – as long as you already are African American or part of another minority group associated with negative stereotypes about intellectual ability. Similarly, confronting women with scientific theories about sex differences, thus adhering to societal expectations about male and female skills, worsens their performance in maths tests.

Unconscious, but pervasive beliefs about the lack of brilliance of women can pose a stereotype threat that discourages women from entering supposedly ‘brainy’ fields.

Some personal soul-searching strategies

Whether we are male or female readers, we all have unconscious biases of some sort. The challenge lies in retrieving those biases for our conscious scrutiny.

So take a test of your own, potentially unconscious, biases regarding gender, or race or weight or sexual orientation, in the Implicit Association Test (IAT) as developed by Project Implicit, an international collaboration dedicated to the dissemination of implicit social cognition research.

If you uncovered a few surprises in one of the demo tests, you might want to move on to TWEE-Q to test whether you are tweeting a biased tune.

Anne Petzold is a second year PhD student studying neuroscience

Images: Einstein and others (Wikimedia Commons); Figure 2 from Meyer et al 2015 (Creative Commons); Stereotype threat data (Wikimedia Commons) 


1. Leslie, S-J. et al (2015) Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines. Science.
347: 262-265, DOI: 10.1126/science.1261375  (pdf).

2. Meyer, M. et al. (2015) Women are underrepresented in fields where success is believed to require brilliance. Front. Psychol.DOI