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Differences in Numbers

There are fewer women in academic fields where raw talent is thought to be the main ingredient for success, according to a study appearing in Science this week. Stereotypes associate men with such special talent, and the combination of a field's emphasis on such innate brilliance and that cultural message may dampen women's participation in the field, the researchers say.

"The problem lies not with women's aptitude but rather with the 'brilliance required' attitude," first author Sarah-Jane Leslie, a Princeton University philosophy professor, tells Reuters.

There is, Leslie and her colleagues note in their paper, a gender imbalance in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, but even within those fields, there are differences in representation. Additionally, women are underrepresented in some humanities fields as well. For instance, they point out that, in 2011, 54 percent of the molecular biology PhDs in the US were women while 31 percent of the philosophy PhDs were women.

To examine this variation, the researchers surveyed 1,820 faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students from 30 disciplines, 12 STEM and 18 social sciences or humanities. They assessed four hypotheses regarding gender balance in academia: the number of work hours, selectivity, whether the field values abstract versus empathetic thinking, and the expected need for innate talent.

Leslie and her colleagues found that the "field-specific ability beliefs hypothesis," or the 'brilliance required' hypothesis, could predict the representation of women across academia, while the competing ideas could not. They added that this could also predict the representation of groups like African Americans who are affected by similar stereotypes.

"The reason for this pattern of results is that our society associates men, but not women, with brilliance," second author Andrei Cimpian, University of Illinois psychology professor, tells Reuters. "We found that women were indeed less likely to obtain PhDs in fields that idolize brilliance and genius."

To attract more women to certain fields, the researchers suggest that academics highlight the need for hard work rather than giftedness.

"If we can adjust these attitudes, we are confident that this will lead to an increased diversity across the whole range of academic disciplines," Leslie tells Nature News.