Science of Success

Research finds women still get passed over for 'intellectual' jobs—but there's an easy way companies could fix that

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New research published in the journal American Psychologist confirms something many women may have sadly suspected for a long time: Women get passed over when employers want "brainy" workers, or need help with intellectually demanding tasks.

Persistent gender biases still cast men as intellectual superior to women, meaning women are less likely to be hired for or seen as capable of handling "smart" roles, like those commonly associated with fields like physics and engineering.

Female students earn higher grades and are more likely to attend a university and graduate than their male peers. But these academic achievements appear to do little to sway this prejudice, which, according to the study, is so deeply-held, it can be observed in adults, children as young as 5, and both sexes.

"The seemingly subtle differences in how people think about the intellectual abilities of women and men translate into macro-level inequities in their professional trajectories, with women being systematically underrepresented in some of the most prestigious jobs in American society," the study's authors, Lin Bian, Andrei Cimpian, and Sarah-Jane Leslie, wrote.

To uncover whether this bias existed and its effect, the researchers conducted an experiment on 1,158 people, asking them to read a job listing and then refer two people they knew for the position. Half were led to believe the job required high-level intellectual ability. The other half were told the job needed a motivated worker who would bring "consistent effort."

Women and men were about equally likely to be recommended for the job that emphasized motivation and effort, but women fared worse when it came to being named for the gig requiring a high IQ.

The odds a woman would be recommended for the open role dropped 38.3 percent when the job description mentioned intellect, the study found. And women were just as likely to inflict this bias on themselves as men were, with both sexes being less likely to suggest a female for a "smart" job.

The worst part? Even if people want to combat gender biases in their hiring decisions and actively promote and employ women, they will likely still fall victim to this thinking. Because companies put a lot of stock in candidate suggestions made by current or former employees, they may be choosing from a pool of applicants already tilted in favor of men, says Bian, an assistant professor of Human Development at Cornell University.

The odds a woman would be recommended for the open role dropped 38.3 percent when the job description mentioned intellect.

She says that while we think of bias as a learned behavior, an adult phenomenon, the study found that our perceptions of who is most brilliant take shape very early in development.

To discover this, the researchers also conducted an experiment with 192 kindergarten and first grade-age children, in which they taught the kids how to play a team game and allowed them to pick their partners. Half of the children were told the game was for "really, really smart" people. The other half were not. The kids then chose three teammates from photos of six children: three boys and three girls, whom they'd never met before.

All kids showed a preference for teammates of their own gender with their initial pick, but those who had been told the game was for "smart" children were more likely to select a boy over a girl for their subsequent partners, with girls being chosen 37.6 percent of the time, vs. 53.4 percent of the time when children simply picked who they liked best.

"It is very striking that these young children are already showing these gender biases," says Bian, who adds the repercussions of this could also be driving the gender imbalance we see in fields like technology and science, where high intellect is critical to success.

Because boys are seen as naturally more intelligent, girls may be passed over for certain school activities or advanced courses by peers and teachers alike that would help them then succeed in those fields. Girls may also internalize this messaging, minimizing their own talents and viewing themselves as less qualified to enter these fields.

Many of us may not even be consciously aware we hold such views. A poll from Pew Research Center found that 86 percent of people felt that the trait "intelligent" is equally likely to describe men and women, but the research proves otherwise, indicating how pernicious this stereotype is.

After all, history books are dominated by male genius figures who made important scientific, academic and technological discoveries, while women, traditionally locked out of opportunities to engage in such work, rarely feature. Bian says it even comes down to the images we typically encounter growing up and how jobs like scientist, physicist, engineer or software developer are all commonly depicted as men.

Emphasize hard work and cooperation in job descriptions and the gender bias goes away.
Lin Bian
assistant professor of Human Development, Cornell University

"This shapes our thinking. It shows only men are highly brilliant, only one gender can be successful in these domains," says Bian. "We need to push to allow girls the same chances to explore intellectual opportunities and change how people view these roles."

But Bian doesn't expect such a shift overnight. Instead of focusing on trying to alter these ingrained perceptions we may hardly be aware, she suggests an alternative method. Because brilliance and intelligence can perpetuate gender imbalance, companies should ditch the terms entirely. 

"Emphasize hard work and cooperation in job descriptions and the gender bias goes away," says Bian. "Men and women are equally likely to be seen as possessing these traits. When you de-emphasize brilliance or intellectual ability, you help to get more women involved."

And the more women hired for and succeeding in brainy jobs, the easier it will be to erase this prejudice.

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