rebecca_newberger_goldstein's picture
Philosopher, Novelist; Recipient, 2014 National Humanities Medal; Author, Plato at the Googleplex; 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction
The En-Gendering Of Genius

For most of its history our species has systematically squandered its human capital by spurning the creative potential of half its members. Higher education was withheld from women in just about every place on earth until the twentieth century, with the few who persevered before then considered “unsexed.”  It’s only been in the last few decades that the gap has so significantly closed that, at least in the U.S., more bachelor’s degrees have been earned by women than by men since 1982, and, since 2010, women have earned the majority of doctoral degrees. This recent progress only underscores the past’s wasteful neglect of human resources.

Still, the gender gap has stubbornly perpetuated itself in certain academic fields, usually identified as STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and this is as true in Europe as in the U.S. A host of explanations have been posed as to the continued male dominance—some only in nervous, hushed voices—as well as recommendations for overcoming the gap.  If the under-representation of women in STEM isn’t the result of innate gender differences in interests and/or abilities (this last, of course, being the possibility that can only be whispered), then it’s important for us to overcome it. We’ve got enormously difficult problems to solve, both theoretical and practical, and it’s lunacy not to take advantage of all the willing and able minds that are out there.

Which is why I found an article published this year in Science by Andrei Cimpian and Sarah-Jane Leslie big news.  First of all, their data shows that the lingering gender gap shouldn’t  be framed in terms of STEM versus non-STEM. There are STEM fields—for example, neuroscience and molecular biology—that have achieved 50% parity in the number of Ph.D.’s earned by men and women in the U.S., and there are non-STEM fields—for example, music theory and composition (15.8%) and philosophy (31.4%)—where the gender gap rivals such STEM fields as physics (18.0%) computer science (18.6%) and mathematics (28.6%). So that’s the first surprise that their research delivers, that it’s not science per se that, for whatever reasons, produces stubborn gender disparity. And this finding in itself somewhat alters the relevance of the various hypotheses offered for the tenacity of the imbalance. 

The hypothesis that Leslie and Cimpian tested is one I’ve rarely seen put on the table and surely not in a testable form. They call it the FAB hypothesis—for field-specific ability beliefs. It focuses on the belief as to whether success in a particular field requires pure innate brilliance, the kind of raw intellectual power that can’t be taught and for which no amount of conscientious hard work is a substitute.  One could call it the “Good-Will-Hunting quotient,” after the 1997 movie that featured Matt Damon as a janitor at MIT who now and then, in the dead of night, pauses to put down his mop in order to effortlessly solve the difficult problems left scribbled on a blackboard. 

In order to test the FAB hypothesis, the researchers sent out queries to practitioners—professors, post-docs, and graduate students—in leading universities in the U.S, probing the extent to which the belief in innate brilliance prevailed in the field. In some fields, success was viewed as more a function of motivation and practice, while in others the Good-Will- Hunting quotient was more highly rated.

And here’s the second surprise: the strength of the FABs in a particular field predicts the percentage of women in that field more accurately than other leading hypotheses, including field-specific variation in work-life balance and reliance on skills for systematizing vs. empathizing. In other words, what Cimpian and Leslie found is that the more that success within a field was seen as a function of sheer intellectual firepower, with words such as “gifted” and “genius” not uncommon, the fewer the women. The FAB hypothesis cut cleanly across the STEM/non-STEM divide. 

Cimpian and Leslie are careful to stress that they don’t interpret their findings as indicating that the FAB hypothesis provides the sole factor behind the lingering gender gap, but simply argue that it is operative. And in follow-up studies, they also discuss informal evidence that raises the plausibility of the FAB hypothesis, including the number of fictional male geniuses inhabiting popular culture—from Sherlock Holmes to Dr. House to Will Hunting—compared to the number of female geniuses.  The stereotype of the genius is overwhelmingly male. And when, I might add, a female genius is the subject, her femaleness itself becomes the focus as much as, or even more than, her genius. If genius is an aberration, then female genius is viewed as significantly more aberrational, since it’s seen as an aberration of femaleness itself. Given such stereotypes, is it unlikely that fields that highlight innate genius would show lagging female numbers?

The authors were exclusively concerned with academic fields. But there is another area of human creativity in which words like “gifted” and “genius” are not uncommon, and that is the arts—including literature.  Here, too, cold, hard, statistics tell a story of persistent gender imbalance. For despite the great number of contemporary women writers, data compiled by VIDA, a women’s literary organization, reveal that the leading American and British literary magazines, the kind whose very attention is the criterion for distinguishing between the important figures and the others, focus their review coverage on books written by men, and commission more men than women to write about them.  Might it be that the FAB hypothesis explains this imbalance as well, highlighting Cimpian’s and Leslie’s findings that the problem is not, essentially, one of STEM vs. non-STEM, nor of mathematical vs. verbal skills? 

I realize that discussing the FAB hypothesis will be seen as small stuff compared to such big news as, say, the icecaps melting at a faster rate than anticipated. And that is why, in responding to this year’s Edge Question, I first began to write about the icecaps.  But perhaps the insignificant measure we assign to the under-estimation of the creative potential of more than half our population is itself a manifestation of the problem. And what could be a greater boon to humanity than increasing the, um, man-power of those making important contributions, not only to science but to our culture at large?