I’ve always been a huge fan of the profound research done by Dr. Leslie and Dr. Cimpian on gender stereotypes. Their study on how misplaced importance on brilliance in a field sometimes discourages the minority in that field (women and African-Americans) is a fascinating one. In their latest study, they surveyed 2,000 professionals in 30 academic fields. The purpose of the survey was to determine how strongly the respondents believed that signs of brilliance, as measured by field-specific ability belief index, resulted in doctorate degrees being awarded in their discipline. It makes a lot of sense that fields with a higher index such as computer science, math, engineering, chemistry and philosophy, awarded relatively fewer advanced degrees to women and African-Americans whereas Art History, Psychology, Literature and other humanities disciplines awarded many more advanced degrees to women and minorities. I especially liked the critical observation related to the comparison between a fixed and growth mindset made in this study. The obsession in STEM fields with being brilliant or genius and the reinforcement of that in society, schools, media and others deter the very same people who we want to encourage to participate more. I see this phenomena occur often in the case of math competitions in middle school and high school, where unfortunately hard work and a growth mindset are not encouraged at all, and the society continually wants to reinforce the concepts of brilliance. For example, when girls do well in math, then “it must be because of their hard work” whereas boys when they do well then “it must be because they are brilliant”. This creates a vicious cycle that causes girls to shy away from participating in problem solving-based math competitions, which could benefit them a lot and eventually help them pursue advanced degrees in STEM including Ph.D.s.
Dr. Leslie and Dr. Cimpian were also featured on primetime television where they disclosed findings from their new study.
This study offered insights that girls at the age of 6 are less likely than boys to believe that they are really smart. Girls then start to avoid activities that they believe require them to be really smart. In Silicon Valley and a few other industries, there are a lot of efforts to encourage hiring of more women in STEM-related disciplines. However, if we do not address the issues outlined in the study where gender stereotypes are formed early in girls, most of the diversity-related initiatives will have mediocre success at best.