Study supports new explanation of gender gaps in academia

January 15, 2015, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
University of Illinois psychology professor Andrei Cimpian and his colleagues found that the expectation that one must be brilliant to succeed in certain academic fields was associated with the underrepresentation of women in those fields. Credit: L. Brian Stauffer

It isn't that women don't want to work long hours or can't compete in highly selective fields, and it isn't that they are less analytical than men, researchers report in a study of gender gaps in academia. It appears instead that women are underrepresented in academic fields whose practitioners put a lot of emphasis on the importance of being brilliant - a quality many people assume women lack.

The new findings are reported in the journal Science.

The research, led by University of Illinois psychology professor Andrei Cimpian and Princeton University philosophy professor Sarah-Jane Leslie , focused on a broad swath of academic disciplines, including those in the sciences, the humanities, social sciences and math.

The researchers focused on the culture of different fields, reasoning that stereotypes of 's inferior intellectual abilities might help explain why women are underrepresented in fields - such as physics or philosophy - that idolize geniuses.

The team surveyed more than 1,800 graduate students, post-doctoral researchers and faculty members in 30 academic disciplines and, among other things, asked them what qualities were required for success in their fields. Across the board, in the sciences, technology, engineering and math (the so-called STEM fields), as well as in the humanities and social sciences, women were found to be underrepresented in those disciplines whose practitioners put a premium on brilliance.

"We're not saying brilliance - or valuing brilliance - is a bad thing," Cimpian said. "And we're not saying women are not brilliant or that being brilliant isn't helpful to one's academic career. Our data don't address that. What they suggest is that conveying to your students a belief that brilliance is required for success may have a differential effect on males and females that are looking to pursue careers in your field."

The team also tested three other hypotheses that might help explain women's underrepresentation in some fields: one, that women avoid careers that require them to work long hours; two, that women are less able than men to get into highly selective fields; and three, that women are outnumbered by men in fields that require analytical, systematical reasoning.

Dr. Andrei Cimpian. Credit: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
"We found that none of these three alternative hypotheses was able to predict women's representation across the academic spectrum," Leslie said. "A strong emphasis on brilliance among practitioners of particular fields was the best predictor of women's underrepresentation in those fields."

The researchers are still investigating whether women are actively avoiding fields that focus on cultivating brilliant individuals, or if practitioners in those fields are discriminating against women based on their beliefs about women's aptitudes. A combination of the two is certainly plausible, Cimpian said.

"There is no convincing evidence in the literature that men and women differ intellectually in ways that would be relevant to their success across the entire range of fields we surveyed," Cimpian said. "So it is most likely that female underrepresentation is not the result of actual differences in intellectual ability - but rather the result of perceived or presumed differences between women and men."

Explore further: Gender fairness prevails in most fields of academic science

More information: Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines, Science, … 1126/science.1261375

Related Stories

Gender fairness prevails in most fields of academic science

November 3, 2014

Women are significantly underrepresented in many science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, and attempts to understand why have only resulted in disagreement among researchers, the lay public, and policymakers. ...

How do men and women respond to gender bias in STEM?

January 8, 2015

Research has revealed that gender biases limit the opportunities for women within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. But just how prevalent are these biases and how are they perceived differently ...

Study explores where high number of women earn STEM degrees

May 28, 2014

( —There have been concerted efforts in recent years to determine how more women can be involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics—the so-called STEM fields. Research from the University of ...

Challenges and strategies for women pursuing STEM careers

August 11, 2014

As a national push continues to recruit talented girls and young women into math and science-related careers, a new study underlines the importance of mentoring and other social support systems for women pursuing those research ...

Recommended for you

Study: Social media sways exercise motivation

January 17, 2019

It's January – a time when students are looking for that extra bit of oomph. For some, time spent on social media might provide the necessary inspiration to get up and exercising – but that time can come with consequences, ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (2) Jan 15, 2015
I understand (is it refuted?) that men's and women's IQ distributions have no significant difference in mean (or median) but that men's distribution has larger tails (fewer at mean). That implies a sex based difference in "brilliance" as well as "dullness", doesn't it? Iff IQ correlates with it, then more men women are dull and more are brilliant. I think "innovative" also needed to be included. Their alternative hypotheses are risible. 1st Its self reporting, with no external metrics (?) 2nd Its an opinion survey 3rd. Did they ask about childcare and family leave? 4th One would hope by graduate school that the person isn't hostage to what is "conveyed" in their classes, rather they observe their peers and undoubtedly (?) base most of their opinions on that... 5th One area of active investigation is middle school where choices are made making a transition to STEM increasingly hard. Seems like junk science to me.
5 / 5 (2) Jan 15, 2015
It's propaganda, not science. If it was science, IQ distributions would be included, as it is highly relevant to intellectual competition. If height were the basis for competition in science, there would be more male scientists too, but height is more crucial in leadership and business, and we see these dominated by tall men. If these social justice warriors had their way, basketball teams would include short people, because it's not fair to only let tall people play.
not rated yet Jan 15, 2015
I know a lot of men with whom I can discuss both philosophy and physics. Most of the women I know find both topics terribly dull. Um...or is that politically incorrect to say?
not rated yet Jan 16, 2015
For the first time in my life I am currently living in suburbs, and let me tell you there is a much simpler answer to why woman are is their choice. Over the last 4 years I have been observing the women of all age groups here, and what I have seen is that a large majority of the woman are looking for an old school leave it to beaver life. I have heard so many women elementary school teachers bemoaning the fact they haven't found a husband wealthy enough to give them the life they "deserve". I have heard the same from woman liquor reps, pharma reps, and even college students. Seems to me alot of woman realize that equality is a double edged sword and are retreating from it. No I am not a misogynist, I actually hate this trend I am seeing.
Jan 16, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Jan 16, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.