Are Men More Associated with Brilliance Than Women?

An implicit gender-brilliance stereotype may exist in adults and children.

Posted Oct 16, 2020

This post was authored in collaboration with Chiara Terzo, a research fellow at the Italian Institute of Technology (Center for Translational Neurophysiology of Speech and Communication).

Despite decades of efforts to promote gender equality in the workplace, women are still underrepresented in careers where success is perceived to depend on high-level intelligence. For example, women account for only 28 percent of the labor force in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Does this distinct pattern of gender representation suggest that women are believed to be less brilliant than men? New research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests the answer is "yes."

In the research, Storage and colleagues tested the existence of a "gender-brilliance stereotype"—one that leads people to implicitly associate the trait of brilliance with men more than women—across five studies with over 3,000 people from 78 countries, including American children between the ages of 9 and 10.

In these studies, the gender-brilliance stereotype was assessed at both the implicit (unconscious) and explicit (conscious) level. The implicit gender-brilliance stereotype was investigated via the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a computer-based time-reaction task that assesses the strength of mental associations stored in memory. Specifically, participants completed an IAT measuring the association strength of the gender categories “male” and “female” with the trait “brilliant” compared to other traits (e.g., creative, happy, friendly).

The explicit gender-brilliance stereotype was, by contrast, measured using self-reported items, in which participants were explicitly asked whether they endorsed the stereotype that men are more brilliant than women or to what extent they associated the trait "brilliant" with men vs. women.

Results showed a consistent implicit stereotype associating the trait of brilliance with men, rather than with women. This stereotype was observed in both women and men, in adults and in children as young as nine years of age, toward targets from different racial/ethnic groups (i.e., toward both White and Black people), and across regions of the world. In contrast, no endorsement of the gender-brilliance stereotype was detected at the explicit level, suggesting that people may be reluctant to report this belief because it may be perceived as socially sensitive and/or undesirable.

Why do people have an implicit gender-brilliance stereotype that favors men?

Storage and colleagues explain that these results may be tied to women's and men's current unequal distribution across careers. “When people observe unequal gender distributions in fields that emphasize brilliance, they may (incorrectly) infer that these distributions reflect the inherent qualities of men and women," they write. "More men than women occupy prominent positions in fields that are perceived to require brilliance—such as mathematics, physics, and philosophy—both currently (e.g., faculty at top institutions) and historically (e.g., Newton, Einstein, Plato, Aristotle). When exposed to these gender-imbalanced distributions, people may infer that men are simply better suited for careers that require intellectual firepower."

In particular, the authors say, the early development of this stereotype might be due to “children’s exposure to socialization agents, such as their parents and teachers, who themselves associate brilliance with men and may express this stereotype through their behaviors around children."

What are the potential consequences of this implicit stereotype?

According to Storage and colleagues, these findings may help explain women's underrepresentation in STEM fields. “Given that success in (some of) these careers is generally assumed to require brilliance, a widespread implicit stereotype that associates brilliance with men may make it more difficult for women to pursue these fields, whether by leading women to opt-out due to lack of belonging or by biasing evaluations of men and women's potential to succeed."

In addition, the authors highlight that “the surprisingly early acquisition of these stereotypes is an important factor as well: The earlier children start associating brilliance with males, the earlier girls' aspirations may veer away (or be pushed away) from careers that they perceive to rely on this trait."

How can we increase the representation of women in fields that value brilliance?

Storage and colleagues suggest several strategies that might reduce implicit gender-brilliance stereotypes and promote women's access to careers that are believed to require high-level intellectual ability. These strategies include educational interventions aimed at challenging the notion of fixed brilliance as a necessary requirement for success, as well as educating members of so-called "brilliance-oriented careers" about the effect of implicit stereotypes. In addition, exposing children to beliefs and behaviors that are gender-neutral or that invoke counterstereotypical models would also be crucial to reduce widespread gender-brilliance stereotypes in future generations.

References

Storage, D., Charlesworth, T. E., Banaji, M. R., & Cimpian, A. (2020). Adults and children implicitly associate brilliance with men more than women. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 90, eid: 104020.