A new study found that we don’t associate women with “genius” traits. To create and celebrate more women inventors, we need to understand and correct gender biases.
The Pacific Northwest is home to geniuses like Kieran Snyder, Jane Park and Leen Kawas.
You thought I’d write Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, didn’t you? You wouldn’t be alone. A new study published in the Social Psychological and Personality Science finds that we use different words to describe exceptional intelligence in men than in women. In short, we associate “genius” traits with men.
The study had 700 men and women rate the ideas of inventors of both genders. “Like a light bulb” discoveries were considered exceptional, but only when the inventor was male. For female-found innovations to be rated exceptional, the idea had to be “nurtured like seeds.”
Therein lies the problem – the word “genius” conjures up people with exceptional innate talent and spontaneous “eureka” moments. Conversely, we want to believe that women with exceptional abilities should have spent time nurturing their talents. This also equates with gendered roles of women as caregivers.
The study’s findings echo some of the grievances I’ve heard from women working in STEM fields: Men are considered brilliant, but women’s brilliance only shines through when we are collaborative.
So what, you wonder? Well, our perceptions matter; we regularly make decisions on whom to hire, promote, pay and applaud based on them. The consequences of judging ideas based on a person’s gender are far-reaching; fewer women are graduating with computer science degrees today than 30 years ago, and women hold less than one-quarter of STEM jobs.
The findings of the study sparked my ideas on how to get more women into these pioneering industries:
Reframe the idea of “genius.” When talking about a new discovery, it’s necessary to be mindful of the words we use, particularly in context of the founder’s gender. Steer away from using “nurturing” for women only; great innovations take time and painstaking effort, regardless of gender.
Feature more women and people of color who are blazing trails. We give undue attention and credit to male geniuses – the discoveries of women and minorities should get as much attention as those by male inventors. As a journalist, I’ve spent most of my career thus far trying to highlight lesser-heard voices.
Expose girls to “genius” women early. For more young girls to choose these paths – through education and experience – they need to see more of themselves represented. More efforts must be made to expose girls to women inventors. As a result, more young girls will start believing their contributions and talents will be recognized.
Still not convinced the words we use to describe exceptional abilities matter? Of the 11 prestigious 2016 Nobel prize winners recently announced, zero were female. It’s disappointing but unsurprising. How are we expected to reward women’s genius, when we don’t recognize them in the first place?