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The power of stereotypes

Studies offer new hypotheses to explain the differences between the science careers of men and women

sp.tif 2NEGREIROSAt a January 2005 conference, economist Lawrence Summers, Dean of Harvard University at that time, said that underrepresentation of women in math and science could be explained by a natural female inaptitude for these fields of knowledge. This unscientific declaration led to an avalanche of criticism against Summers, which ended with his removal from the position of Dean at one of the most prestigious U.S. universities.  A study published in the journal Science in January 2015 sees a relationship between low participation by women in certain areas of science and the idea that innate talents determine scientific careers, albeit in a very different way from what Summers proposed.

This study gathered evidence that certain fields of knowledge, such as mathematics and physics, combine a low participation by women PhDs with a widely disseminated belief, both inside and outside their communities of researchers, that natural talent is needed for these careers.  The authors suggest that women, who are bombarded from a young age with the idea that they lack the natural aptitude, simply tend to avoid these careers, which would explain their limited participation. “This message is combined with deep-rooted stereotypes in our culture that reduce gender diversity in science,” says Sarah-Jane Leslie, a professor in the Philosophy Department of Princeton University and principal author of the article.

For Leslie, when women internalize these stereotypes, they can also decide which fields of knowledge are not for them. As a result, they end up with little representation in these areas that supposedly require special talent. Leslie got a glimpse of this idea after participating in a conference of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology (SPP). “I noticed that philosophers placed a great deal of importance on the idea of innate aptitude, while psychologists placed greater emphasis on dedication and effort,” she says. “At the same time, I realized that there were more male philosophers and more female psychologists.” Based on this observation, Leslie decided to see in practice whether this correlation between the number of researchers in one field of knowledge and the belief in innate talent appeared elsewhere.

The response was positive. The belief in some type of innate talent or aptitude was identified in the so-called hard sciences, such as physics, and in the technological sciences, such as engineering or computer science. These are fields in which there is generally less female participation, especially at the top of the field. According to the study, this phenomenon would explain the variation in the share of women in some subjects in the humanities, a field in which there is a greater presence of women. For example, in the United States, there are more PhDs in art history and psychology (around 70%) than in economics and philosophy (less than 35%).

Leslie and her team distributed 1,820 questionnaires to graduate students and recent PhD recipients from several parts of the United States who were participating in a 2011 study conducted by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the leading research sponsoring agency in the United States. Those interviewed came from 30 different fields of study: 12 were in natural and technological sciences, including engineering and math; and 18 were in the social sciences and the humanities. Participants were asked to answer a number of questions. One of these asked: “Does being a recognized researcher in my area require a special aptitude that cannot be learned?” Participants had to say whether or not they agreed with the statements and what others in their areas would say about them.

In order to measure the level of “belief in the importance of innate talent,” the authors of the study used a statistical model according to which the lower the number on the scale (ranging from 3.2 to 5.2), the fewer people there are who believe in innate talent in a field of knowledge.  For example, in philosophy, this number is almost 5.2, which is indicative of the large emphasis that professionals in this area place on the idea of innate talent. According to the study, it is no coincidence that philosophy has one of the lowest percentages of female PhDs in the United States, approximately 30% in 2011 (see graph). On the other hand, psychology has a level of “belief” below 3.7 and a share of women PhDs greater than 70%.

NEGREIROSThese analyses also included two groups of racial minorities: African Americans and descendant of Asians. According to this study, the same phenomenon that occurs with women serves to explain the scarcity of these ethnic groups in some subjects. The low levels of PhDs held by blacks (less than 15%) can be seen across the board. Researchers who wish to diversify their fields need to minimize the notion that African Americans and women are less talented and emphasize the importance of personal effort,” conclude study researchers.

However, for Maria Conceição da Costa, a researcher at the Pagu Center for Gender Studies at the University of Campinas (Unicamp), the study published in the journal Science deals with a complex problem in a way that sounds simplistic. According to her, this work lacks a more in-depth analysis that correlates different factors, such as gender, race, economic status and regional conditions. “To speak just of men and women is very generic. There is a difference, for example, between black women in the U.S. South who have greater access to universities than black women in the North of the country,” she says. Costa also notes the lack of critical comments in the article. “It functions more like a declaration and not like a critique of innate talent. More than just graphs, what is needed is a presentation of the mechanisms and conditions that lead people to believe that men are more capable than women,” she affirms.

The study findings lead to the question: does the overwhelming presence of women in fields like psychology and education favor the idea of personal effort? According to sociologist Gilda Olinto, a researcher at the Brazilian Institute of Science and Technology Information (IBICT) and professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), it is possible that a female culture in science, one that values personal effort, is developing. “This would be a positive thing,” she says. Olinta notes that the study authors themselves, upon examining the relation between the sex of interviewees and the valuation of innate talent, as opposed to dedication to work, confirm that women value dedication more than men do. “Attributing less value to innate talent is also a characteristic of subjects with a higher female presence. So, a lower valuation of innate talent could be a consequence of an academic culture that is characteristic of disciplines with a stronger female presence,” she affirms. Therefore, she says that a greater presence of women in a given field may not be the result of attributing value to effort; to the contrary, it may mean that the more women there are in a field, the less importance is given to the argument of innate talent.

For physicist Marcia Barbosa, from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), the idea of innate talent is associated with an outdated image of scientists; however, it is still alive today. “Figures such as Newton, Einstein and Galileo, among many others, captured the popular imagination, which relates genius and the brilliance of these men.” However, she says, this image will tend to lose its sway over the course of the 21st century. “What is needed to conduct science today is more of a combination of talents than the genius of a single person. Research is more collaborative and for this reason, cases like Einstein’s will be rarer going forward,” she says. For her, in the case of the Brazilian scientific community, the belief in innate talent is a less important factor in explaining the low share of women in some fields.

Marcia Barbosa is one of the authors of a study that evaluated the participation of women in Brazilian science. This work, published in the 2013 book Trabalhadoras: análise da feminização das profissões e ocupações (Women workers: an analysis of professions and occupations), evaluated recipients of Scientific Productivity Grants in Brazil awarded by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) between 2001 and 2011, in physics and medicine. This study showed that even in the case of medicine, in which the percentage of women is almost 40% at level 2, the most basic level, as their careers advance, the percentage of women falls to 20% at level 1A, which is given to the most experienced researchers under the CNPq classification. The numbers are even worse in physics (see graph). Although women now make up the majority of students at Brazilian universities and already represent some 50% of the faculty at public institutions according to data of the Higher Education Census of 2010, the study shows that their access to the highest levels of research is still limited.

By way of example, a March 2015 study published by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows that at the age of 15, the academic performance of girls in several subjects, including math, is higher than that of boys. In the United States, for students with the lowest performance in school, 63% are boys and 36% are girls. In Brazil the difference is less pronounced: 52% are boys and 47% are girls. In all, 510,000 students were evaluated in 64 countries that participate in the Program for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which assesses students’ ability to analyze, reason, and reflect on their knowledge and experiences. This study also shows that parents are much more likely to expect their sons rather than their daughters to pursue careers in technological areas, even if their daughters receive good grades in school. In countries such as Chile, Hungary and Portugal, for example, fewer than 20% of parents interviewed expect to see their daughters working in scientific areas. One of the conclusions of the OECD study is that gender disparities do not result from innate differences between both sexes, but instead, from the students’ attitudes in relation to learning and the behavior they demonstrated in school. “Several factors contribute to forming these behaviors, including family values, the work of teachers in the classroom, and how the young people spend their leisure time. All students have the same potential, regardless of whether they are boys or girls,” says the study.