Women are still underrepresented in careers where success is considered to rely on high-level intelligence even after decades of efforts to foster gender equality in the workplace.
For instance, in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) areas, women account for just 28 percent of the workforce.
Does this distinct gender representation trend mean that it is believed that women are less brilliant than men? A recent research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology indicates that the answer is ‘yes.’
In the study, the prevalence of a “gender-brilliance bias”, which causes individuals to unconsciously associate the attribute of brilliance to men rather than women, was studied across five studies of over 3,000 individuals from 78 countries, including children between the ages of 9 and 10.
The gender-brilliance stereotype was tested in these studies at both the implicit (unconscious) and explicit (conscious) level. Through the use of the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a computer-based time-reaction task that measures the strength of mental associations retained in memory, the unconscious gender-brilliance stereotype was examined. In relation to other characteristics ( e.g., creative, happy, friendly), participants completed an IAT evaluating the correlation strength of the gender categories “male” and “female” with the trait “brilliant.”
In comparison, the explicit stereotype of gender brilliance was assessed using self-reported items, in which participants were specifically asked whether they accepted the idea that men are more brilliant than women or to what degree they correlated the “brilliant” attribute with men vs. women.
The findings revealed a clear implicit or unconscious stereotype associating the attribute of brilliance with men, rather than women. This stereotype has been observed in both women and men, in adults and children as young as nine years of age and across different ethnic groups and regions of the world.
In comparison, at the explicit or conscious level, any acceptance towards gender-brilliance stereotype was not found, indicating that individuals might be hesitant to reveal this assumption because it may be viewed as socially sensitive and/or unwelcome.
Why do we have a gender-brilliance stereotype that favors men?
Researchers explain that these results may be tied to women’s and men’s current unequal distribution across careers.
“When people observe unequal gender distributions in fields that emphasize brilliance, they may (incorrectly) infer that these distributions reflect the inherent qualities of men and women,” they write. “More men than women occupy prominent positions in fields that are perceived to require brilliance such as mathematics, physics, and philosophy, both currently (e.g., faculty at top institutions) and historically (e.g., Newton, Einstein, Plato, Aristotle). When exposed to these gender-imbalanced distributions, people may infer that men are simply better suited for careers that require intellectual firepower.”
In particular, the authors say, the early development of this stereotype might be due to “children’s exposure to socialization agents, such as their parents and teachers, who themselves associate brilliance with men and may express this stereotype through their behaviors around children.”
What are the consequences of such a bias?
According to the study these findings may help explain women’s underrepresentation in STEM fields. “Given that success in (some of) these careers is generally assumed to require brilliance, a widespread implicit stereotype that associates brilliance with men may make it more difficult for women to pursue these fields, whether by leading women to opt-out due to lack of belonging or by biasing evaluations of men and women’s potential to succeed.”
In addition, the authors highlight that “the surprisingly early acquisition of these stereotypes is an important factor as well: The earlier children start associating brilliance with males, the earlier girls’ aspirations may veer away (or be pushed away) from careers that they perceive to rely on this trait.”
How can we increase the representation of women in fields that value brilliance?
The study also suggests several strategies that might reduce implicit gender-brilliance stereotypes and promote women’s access to careers that are believed to require high-level intellectual ability.
These strategies include educational interventions aimed at challenging the notion of fixed brilliance as a necessary requirement for success, as well as educating members of so-called “brilliance-oriented careers” about the effect of implicit stereotypes.
In addition, exposing children to beliefs and behaviors that are gender-neutral or that invoke counter stereotypical models would also be crucial to reduce widespread gender-brilliance stereotypes in future generations.