Do Fictional Geniuses Hold Back Real Women? : NPR Ed A new study finds that the academic disciplines most associated with "geniuses" are also the fields in which women are underrepresented.

Do Fictional Geniuses Hold Back Real Women?

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The stereotype of the lone genius, generally in popular culture and the real world, is expected to be a man. As NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, that gender stereotype may have an impact on women in some academic fields.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Sarah-Jane Leslie works at Princeton University as a philosopher.

SARAH-JANE LESLIE: Which is a humanities discipline that has very few women.

BRUMFIEL: She says philosophy is also one of those disciplines where the word genius gets thrown around a lot.

LESLIE: We wondered if there might be a connection between philosophers' disposition to place all this emphasis on the need for brilliance and the discipline's large gender gap.

BRUMFIEL: So she and some colleagues surveyed philosophers and asked them; to be really good at philosophy, do you need natural talent? They asked the same question of scholars in 30 other fields, the result published in the journal Science.

LESLIE: To the extent that a discipline expresses the belief that you have to have a special spark of brilliance to really be successful, we found that those disciplines had larger gender gaps.

BRUMFIEL: There were fewer women in fields where genius was a perceived prerequisite. That rule didn't apply to just the usual genius-y fields like physics and math.


LESLIE: Music composition was definitely towards that end of the spectrum, and correspondingly has very few women in it.

BRUMFIEL: Genius composers like Mozart, genius physicists like Einstein - these icons are male. And Leslie believes that image is keeping women out.

LESLIE: Even though women are just as likely as men to have what it takes.

BRUMFIEL: But not everyone thinks this genius effect is to blame. Lisa Randall is a theoretical physicist at Harvard. She says the problems women face in science are no different than they face in other professions.

LISA RANDALL: I remember a long time ago, there was a cartoon in The New Yorker. A bunch of guys and one women around a desk, and they said this is a very good comment, Miss Tribbs, would one of the guys here like to make it?

BRUMFIEL: She thinks academia has the same problems as, say, business. Men talk over women at meetings. Some women feel marginalized, and eventually, they give up.

RANDALL: Is it really that it's because it's being associated with genius that this is happening, or is it simply that people aren't listening to their ideas?

BRUMFIEL: Hard to say. But in physics, at least, the number of women earning degrees is rising, slowly. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

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