Report

Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines

Science  16 Jan 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6219, pp. 262-265
DOI: 10.1126/science.1261375

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Women's participation and attitudes to talent

Some scientific disciplines have lower percentages of women in academia than others. Leslie et al. hypothesized that general attitudes about the discipline would reflect the representation of women in those fields (see the Perspective by Penner). Surveys revealed that some fields are believed to require attributes such as brilliance and genius, whereas other fields are believed to require more empathy or hard work. In fields where people thought that raw talent was required, academic departments had lower percentages of women.

Science, this issue p. 262; see also p. 234

Abstract

The gender imbalance in STEM subjects dominates current debates about women’s underrepresentation in academia. However, women are well represented at the Ph.D. level in some sciences and poorly represented in some humanities (e.g., in 2011, 54% of U.S. Ph.D.’s in molecular biology were women versus only 31% in philosophy). We hypothesize that, across the academic spectrum, women are underrepresented in fields whose practitioners believe that raw, innate talent is the main requirement for success, because women are stereotyped as not possessing such talent. This hypothesis extends to African Americans’ underrepresentation as well, as this group is subject to similar stereotypes. Results from a nationwide survey of academics support our hypothesis (termed the field-specific ability beliefs hypothesis) over three competing hypotheses.

  • Corresponding author. E-mail: sjleslie{at}princeton.edu (S.-J.L.) or acimpian{at}illinois.edu (A.C.)

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