Representation of women and the genius myth
In a recent issue of Science, there was an article entitled Belief that some fields require ‘brilliance’ may keep women out (hat tip Gary Cornell) that absolutely resonates with my experiences, both as a mathematician and as a teacher.
Namely, it talks about the extent to which women are discouraged to go into a field because that field is somehow reserved for “geniuses,” and women are rarely if ever bestowed with that label. Mathematics is definitely one of those fields; if you are exceptionally successful in mathematics, people call you a genius, and it’s pretty hard to be successful if people don’t think you’re a genius.
But other STEM fields have less of a reputation for geniuses, and they have correspondingly more women. Biology, for example. Moreover, there are some fields outside of STEM that have way fewer women, which seems unexplained unless you have the “genius” theory. Philosophy is the obvious example here, a very macho field.
In the Science article, they were reporting on a study done by Sarah-Jane Leslie, Andrei Cimpian, Meredith Meyer, and Edward Freeland, in which they surveyed researchers from all sorts of fields in all sorts of research universities and asked them to rate, on a scale of 1-7, statements about their own discipline along the lines of, “Being a top scholar of [discipline] requires a special aptitude that just can’t be taught”. Here’s the critical graph:
It’s just one study, and the response rate was small, so the word is not final. Even so, I think this proves that we should look into this more, gather more evidence, and see where it leads.
Personally, I have already spent quite a bit of time trying to deal with this very problem in mathematics. For example, I’ve explained before how I deliberately teach kids an introduction to proof that emphasizes practice over the silly and distracting concept of having an innate gift. It works, and it’s more fun too, for both men and women.
If I were designing a curriculum for STEM subjects I would rely heavily on this idea to inform my approaches to all sorts of things, partly because I think it’s true, but partly because the other things we think might matter are harder to change.
If you think about it, it’s actually a pretty reasonable roadmap for how to attract a more diverse group of people to mathematics or other subjects. You just need to create an environment of learning that emphasizes practice over genius. Actively dispel the genius myth. Achieving that cultural shift gets harder the higher up the research ladder you go, though, partly because it’s hard for older people to give up the “genius” label they worked so hard for. But it’s worth a try.