Study Findings Point To Source of Gender Gap In STEM Programs

A new study published in the journal Science, has revealed that STEM fields of academic study that are often associated with the “spark of genius” held by most members is lacking in female participation due to the long present assumption that women don’t have what it takes to join those ranks.

The study, Expectations of Brilliance Underlie Gender Distributions Across Academic Disciplines, was conducted by Princeton University philosophy professor Sarah-Jane Leslie and University of Illinois psychology professor Andrei Cimpian.

During the course of their research, 1,820 graduates students, post-doctoral researchers and various faculty members were presented with a series of questions that covered what specific abilities they believed were vital for success in their respective academic fields. The students polled are said to represent fields of study ranging from natural science to humanities and everything in between.

“When asked to consider what it takes to succeed, academics give different answers depending on their chosen field,” Leslie said. “In some fields, success is viewed primarily as a matter of hard work and dedication. But in others, success is seen as requiring a special, unteachable spark of brilliance.”

Leslie and Cimpian found that there is indeed a connection between the lack of women in the academic fields of study in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and the attitude that women don’t meet the standards of natural brilliance required to excel in these areas. Participation in STEM fields is thought to be further squelched when societal stereotypes are added into the mix, according to the study.

Leslie said, “The problem lies not with women’s aptitude but rather the ‘brilliance required’ attitude.”

During the course of their research, Leslie and Cimpian also felt that they gathered enough data to strongly dispel three very common theories as to why there is a gender gap in academia.

Their research indicated that the following assumptions were false: women are less inherently intelligent than their male counterparts and women are not willing or capable of enduring the long hours that are at times necessary in certain fields. Perhaps the most important theory trumped by this study, was that of males being better candidates in fields where abstract and systematic thought processes are necessities while women are better off sticking to fields where their empathetic and emotional skills may be used.

“We are not arguing that brilliance doesn’t matter. Our paper isn’t about what one actually needs to succeed in a field,” Cimpain further clarified. “Instead, our findings suggest that if members of a specific field believe strongly in the importance of brilliance and convey that to aspiring members, they are likely to undermine female participation.”

Also discovered during this portion of the study was the propensity for minorities to be underrepresented in these same fields. This is an area of interest to Leslie and Cimpian, according to a report by the Advancing Science Society. The pair intends to follow up their initial findings with a more in depth study in the near future.

“Those fields whose members felt that a spark of genius is required for success were less likely to include African American Ph.D’s,” said Cimpian. “This finding is consistent with our hypothesis because, like women, African Americans are the targets of negative cultural stereotypes about their intellectual abilities – stereotypes that appear to discourage their participation in fields that idolize these traits.”

During a press teleconference to discuss the study, Leslie said, “Consider, for example, how difficult it is to think of even a single pop cultural portrayal of a woman who – like Sherlock Holmes; Dr. House from the show House, M.D.; or Will Hunting from the movie Good Will Hunting – displays that special spark of innate, unschooled genius. Women who are presented as intellectually accomplished tend, like Hermione Granger, to also be portrayed as incredibly hard working and diligent.”

Hopefully the research conducted by Leslie and Crimpian will help lay to rest these outdated and inaccurate views that are discouraging women from joining in more STEM fields, programs and careers. Only time will tell, though, as more women enter the academic world and are empowered to own their own “sparks of genius.”

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