Men are more likely to be seen as “brilliant” than women, according to a new study published today in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Researchers found that this gendered stereotype that men are intellectually superior to women isn’t held consciously but is rather a result of implicit bias, which is when associations are automatically activated in our minds
“People explicitly say that they associate women with brilliance. Yet implicit measures reveal a different story about the more automatic gender stereotypes that come to mind when thinking about brilliance,” explained Tessa Charlesworth, a doctoral student at Harvard University and co-author of the paper.
In a series of five experiments, the study surveyed more than 3,000 people from over 78 countries, including U.S. women and men as well as U.S. girls and boys between the ages of 9 and 10.
The researchers found that overwhelmingly people viewed “brilliance” or “genius” as a male trait.
And this biased belief is damaging to women.
“Stereotypes that portray brilliance as a male trait are likely to hold women back across a wide range of prestigious careers,” said Daniel Storage, the paper’s lead author.
For example, previous studies have shown that this implicit bias can discourage women from applying for jobs as well as reduces the likelihood they’re referred to jobs.
One study found that women are less likely to apply for jobs that are advertised as requiring a brilliant mind.
Another study, published in the journal American Psychologist, suggests that job descriptions that emphasize brilliance trigger sexist assumptions as people consider their friends and peers as possible candidates.
“Despite the objective evidence of women’s intellectual and professional accomplishments, it seems that their ability to make intellectual contributions is still not seen as being on par with men’s,” wrote Cornell University psychologist Lin Bian in Pacific Standard.
Further, previous work by this latest study’s senior author, Andrei Cimpian, has suggested that women are underrepresented in careers where success is perceived to depend on high levels of intellectual ability, such as in science and technology.
The lack of women in STEM, as well as women in positions of power in STEM, is nothing new and research does suggest it may be in part due to this gender -biased belief that you need to be brilliant to succeed.
But the need for more women in STEM goes far beyond filling a diversity quotient.
As Bianca Barratt wrote: “We need more women in STEM roles to make scientific innovations useful and, more importantly, safe.”
We can look to the healthcare as an example of how detrimental this bias can be.
“The science that informs medicine – including the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disease – routinely fails to consider the crucial impact of sex and gender. This happens in the earliest stages of research, when females are excluded from animal and human studies or the sex of the animals isn’t stated in the published results. Once clinical trials begin, researchers frequently do not enroll adequate numbers of women or, when they do, fail to analyze or report data separately by sex. This hampers our ability to identify important differences that could benefit the health of all,” detailed a 2014 report from researchers at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
For example, a 2014 survey of more than 2,000 women found that 75% of the women surveyed were told at least once by a doctor that nothing could be done for their pain and that they would just have to live with it.
More recently this unconscious sexism might also be at fault for holding women back when it comes to the response to Covid-19.
Thirty-five female scientists wrote that “the scientific response to Covid-19 has been characterized by an extraordinary level of sexism and racism” in a May 15, 2020 blog in Times Higher Education.
“As women who are deeply involved in Covid-19 science, it has become clear to us that our expertise means little when it comes to real decision-making in this public health emergency,” they wrote.
As the scientists pointed out in their post, the lack of inclusion of female voices is concerning.
“Management consultants – largely male – with negligible relevant experience are making key decisions about the health of millions. Tech sector data scientists with no prior experience in any aspect of public health, biology or disease control are being “pulled in” to task forces to discuss the finer points of contact tracing with policymakers. Senior male academics, famous for their innovations in other spheres, are giving public commentary with ill-informed [modeling] exercises, conjectures, or policy prescriptions with no basis in rigorous science,” they wrote.
You’d think we would have learned our lesson by now when it comes to underestimating women and what they have to offer, but that’s the problem with implicit bias; it’s hard to shake. Plus anti-bias training doesn’t work and can even backfire.
So how do we stop our unconscious minds from falling into outdated ways of thinking?
As Cimpian explains understanding how common and significant the gender-brilliance stereotype is can go a long way in informing future efforts to increase gender equity.
For example, Bian suggested in an interview removing terms that emphasize the need for superior intellect in job descriptions to avoid the unintended consequence of discouraging women to apply to certain positions.
Originally posted on Forbes