In early 2015, a team of researchers released intriguing findings from their study on gender distributions across academic disciplines.
They were curious why there is so much variation in gender representation across academia – disparity which is far from restricted to the STEM disciplines.
Women make up “approximately half of all Ph.D.’s in molecular biology and neuroscience in the United States, but fewer than 20% of all Ph.D.’s in physics and computer science.” Furthermore, women earn more than 70% of all Ph.D.’s in art history and psychology, but fewer than 35% of all Ph.D.’s in economics and philosophy.
So the problem is not simply one of raw representation.
Trying to get at the root causes of these variations, the team surveyed faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students from 30 disciplines across the United States – asking what qualities it takes to succeed in the respondents field.
Ultimately, they found that “women are underrepresented in fields whose practitioners believe that raw, innate talent is the main requirement for success.”
There is, of course, no reason to believe that women have, on average, less raw talent then men – but rather that women fail to advance in fields where raw talent – rather than hard work – is seen as a key factor for success.
It’s beyond the scope of this study to explain why the “extent to which practitioners of a discipline believe that success depends on sheer brilliance is a strong predictor” of gender representation. Though they do offer a few potential explanations:
The practitioners of disciplines that emphasize raw aptitude may doubt that women possess this sort of aptitude and may therefore exhibit biases against them. The emphasis on raw aptitude may activate the negative stereotypes in women’s own minds, making them vulnerable to stereotype threat. If women internalize the stereotypes, they may also decide that these fields are not for them. As a result of these processes, women may be less represented in “brilliance-required” fields.
In some ways, these explanations evoke the so-called “confidence gap” – the idea that women are more likely to attribute their success to good fortune or especially hard work; not to real achievement.
As the authors of The Confidence Code write, “Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities.”
Perhaps women shy away from these “brilliance-required” disciplines because – regardless of their actual talent – they simply don’t have the confidence required to pursue them.
….Or maybe they get pushed out by overbearing, patriarchal peers.
It’s hard to say. But I’ve been thinking about this 2014 study recently because I’ve found – as a first year Ph.D. student – that I am now constantly attributing my classroom success to hard work.
I’d hardly say that I’m brilliant, but I can work hard and figure stuff out along the way. I’d generally be inclined to attribute that sentiment to my working class background, but it’s interesting to think there may be a gender component there as well.
This all comes, of course, with an important word of caution: Too often, the solution to the confidence gap is seen as somehow “fixing” women – getting them to have the same high levels of confidence as the most self-aggrandizing of their male peers.
This is hardly a solution.
So let me be clear: it is not women who are broken, it’s the academy.